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A world of difference in paid time off 

From the “no-vacation nation” to taking time off with barely a day’s notice, PTO practices vary widely around the globe.

When Aysel, an accountant in Turkey, wants to go on vacation, she just gives her employer a few days’ notice before hitting the road. For many Turkish workers, giving little notice is the norm. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, many workers in the U.S. struggle to take their earned paid time off (PTO) at all, let alone without notice. The United States was called the “no-vacation nation” by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and about half of Americans report not using all their vacation days.

Between those two extremes, workers seeking rest and relaxation have a wide variety of experiences depending on their country, industry and career level. Taking time off work is increasingly vital as workers face higher levels of burnout, which according to research from Microsoft reached as high as 50% in 2022, and the lines around working hours blur in a remote working environment.  

PTO around the world

Among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, Austria comes in first place offering a minimum of 25 days of annual leave a year. However, the number drastically drops with South Korea offering 16 days of annual leave and the United States at the bottom with 10. 

Haesu, a 25-year-old marketing associate in Korea, has to give quite a bit of notice to her employer when taking PTO. 

“I do have to tell my manager about five weeks in advance when I plan to take three or four days off, but if it’s a week that I can work remotely, I am still able to travel, which offsets the downside of having to give such early notice,” Haesu says. On average, she said she takes 20 to 22 days off each year, not including the occasional doctor’s visit or sick day. 

Workers in other regions have ample vacation time, but not necessarily flexibility about when they take it. 

Juliana, an English teacher in her early 40s in Sao Paulo, Brazil, says she only takes four or five days off during the school year, though she does automatically get the whole summer off. Juliana’s husband, an accountant, also only takes four or five days off. 

Juliana says teachers’ work contracts greatly vary when it comes to time off, and seniority plays a factor in how much time one can take off. She plans her days off around holidays in order to maximize the days that she can take off throughout the year. 

“It’s not about quantity, it’s about how long you have worked at a company or an agreement you’ve negotiated at the time of hire,” Juliana says, mentioning the differences across PTO allotment among employees in the same organization. 

Isabella Licata, an office manager in Rome, scoffed at the idea of not using all of her vacation days. She says that in Italy there is more uniformity around when employees take time off. “We often take much of August off,” she says. “Business just stops, so it is useless to be working during that time period.” 

The beaches of Sicily are Isabella’s holiday destination of choice. The August holiday trend in Europe is helpful in one way, because workers can completely disconnect and not worry about being interrupted during their holidays. But it also means the most popular destinations will be crowded, as many organizations require workers to take off at least two weeks in August.  

The importance of time off

In the war for talent, some employers have started offering unlimited time off. But studies show that workers with “unlimited” time off often end up taking fewer days off than those with limited PTO. 

Employees who take time off are less likely to suffer from burnout and are better prepared to be present while on the clock. Taking a break from the daily routine allows employees to step back and gain new perspectives. This fresh outlook can spark innovative ideas and solutions to existing challenges. By encouraging employees to take time off, employers create an environment that values creativity and supports the generation of novel concepts and approaches. 

For Haesu, a good time off policy has kept her at her job despite receiving higher salary offers elsewhere. Work-life balance is top of mind for South Koreans. “Bragging rights in my friend group is who is able to log off before 6 p.m. on a regular basis,” Haesu says. 

Paid time off has become the talk of her peer group this year — in the spring, the South Korean government was planning to raise the weekly working cap to 69 hours per week, up from 52. But younger generations spoke out against the proposal, the government listened and the president announced that after listening to public opinion, they decided against it.

“Bragging rights in my friend group is who is able to log off before 6 p.m. on a regular basis.”

Taking time off has changed since the pandemic. Aysel finds that while there was always a more relaxed policy towards giving notice to take time off in Turkey, after the pandemic, employers are even more understanding about individual wellness and the need to take time off suddenly. 

“It’s always been the mindset that we’re a family, and if you need to take off, take the PTO time, but since Covid, there are no hard feelings when a coworker goes on vacation and someone else on the team may need to do an extra hour or two of work,” Aysel says. “it balances out because I may need the same.” 

Company-wide days off have become more popular in recent years as well, as employers want to encourage people to recharge. In addition to employee vacation time, consultancy PwC has implemented two week-long, company-wide breaks during the year. 

Could encouraging employees to take time off keep them loyal to their roles despite competitive job offers? Does offering PTO with shorter notice help employees take time to reset? Maybe. For Haesu and Aysel, both say that those aspects of their jobs have improved their work-life balance. 

“Sometimes projects get slow unexpectedly,” Aysel says. “Instead of waiting around and then forgetting to take PTO for months on end, I can inform my employer and spend some days resetting my life to be ready when the workflow gets busier.”

Kristen Talman

Kristen Talman is a journalist who covers finance, focusing on emerging themes such as ESG and the change afoot in global capital flows. Previously, she worked for the Morning Brew and Financial Times where she covered corporate finance and ESG. During Kristen’s tenure at the Financial Times, she was part of the founding team for Moral Money, a SABEW award-winning newsletter team that dove into if, and how, money was moving into greener, more equitable, spaces. Kristen is a multilingual reporter who has also done research and reporting in Colombia, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.