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Why America Should Follow Japan's Lead on Forcing Workers to Take Vacation

A law forcing you to take vacation days? Sounds like a bureaucratic gift, but in Japan, it's meant as a workaholic intervention.

Legislation will be submitted in the country's current session of parliament that will make it the legal responsibility of employers to ensure that workers use their holiday time. Japan has been studying such legislation since 2012, when a consensus concluded that the health, social, and productivity costs of Japan’s extreme work ethic were too high.

While it may seem crazy to Americans to require a person to take a vacation, we suffer from more than a touch of workaholism in this country.

In Japan, 22% of workers toil for more than 49 hours a week; in the U.S., it's 16%. But in France and Germany, only 11% of the population puts in that many hours, according to data compiled by the Japanese government.

And when it comes to unused vacation days, we are second only to Japan among developed nations. The average Japanese worker used only 7 of the 18 vacation days allotted each year, or 39% of their annual paid leave, a survey by Expedia Japan found. According to a study by Oxford Economics, U.S. workers who had paid time off typically left 3 vacation days on the table. And if you look just at the 41% of U.S. workers who said they did not plan on taking all their vacation, the average number of unused days jumps to 8.

We're also similar to Japan in another way: the percentage of workers who don’t take any vacation at all. A whopping 17% of the Japanese workforce does not take a single day of paid vacation, compared with 13% of Americans. Both of those figures are startlingly high in light of the fact that there wasn't a single Australian in the Expedia Japan survey who didn't take off at least one day in the past year.

Trending in the Wrong Direction?

While Japan is working on decreasing unused days, America seems to be heading the other way. Use of vacation days are at their lowest point in the past four decades, the Oxford Economics study found.

Fears of keeping your job, being passed over for promotions or lead projects, coming back to a staggering pile of work, or feeling like you're the only one who can do your job all push Americans to stay at the office—or, when they do actually take a holiday, to do some work remotely. Employment website Glassdoor found that 61% of us have logged on while we were supposed to be logged off.

This shift can hurt us big time when you consider that employees who use more vacation days end up with better performance reviews, according to internal research by audit firm EY. Increased vacation time has also been linked to increased worker productivity, other research has shown.

Japan has another key piece of legislation that the U.S. lacks: It guarantees workers 10 paid days off a year.

Unlike most other countries with advanced economies, "the United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time and is one of only a few rich countries that does not require employers to offer at least some paid holidays," noted a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank. Nearly a quarter of Americans receive no paid days off at all.

Considering that workers in the European Union enjoy—and use—a minimum of 20 paid vacation days and as many as 13 paid national holidays, it seems Japan isn't the only country that could use a little legal help taking a break.

Read next: How to Disconnect From Work (Without Getting on the Boss's Bad Side)

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