Who gets the most (and least) vacation

When it comes to taking a holiday, it's best to be Finnish, and (not quite) the worst to be American. A new study ranks countries by their paid time-off policies.

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- It's the start of vacation season, but you can probably count on one hand, if that, the people you know who are taking off several weeks this summer.

The tally likely would be much higher if you also had friends from, say, Finland, where workers must get a minimum of 30 days paid vacation plus up to 14 paid holidays a year. That makes it the country with the most generous paid time off laws out of 49 nations surveyed by human resource consulting firm Mercer. (See how the countries rank in the table below.)

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Besides getting less vacation than workers in many other countries, Americans often don't use all the time that they do get, and what vacation they take is spent in small slices and often in contact with the office, according to findings from other studies.

Unlike in most other countries, there is no federal law mandating that companies pay employees for time off or that they grant them a minimum amount of vacation days unpaid.

The typical practice in the United States - among large companies anyway - is 15 days paid vacation and 10 days of paid holidays for full-time employees with 10 years of tenure, Mercer found.

Another study, by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), found the norm to be much lower when considering companies of all sizes and workers of all tenures: 9 days of paid vacation with 6 days of paid holidays. It also estimates that almost one in four U.S. workers don't get any paid days off at all.

Joe Robinson, who runs the Work to Live Campaign and advocates for a minimum paid-leave law in the United States, contends a vacation system based on tenure, which is typical at U.S. companies, leaves U.S. workers with consistently low vacation benefits given how frequently people change jobs during a career.

All members of the European Union, by contrast, must provide workers with a minimum of 20 paid vacation days a year plus public holidays.

One reason may be a stronger relationship than exists in the United States between employer and employee, who is seen more on the level of shareholder in Europe, said Mark Sullivan, a worldwide partner at Mercer who conducted that firm's time-off study. Another may be the existence of legally mandated work councils, which represent employee interests in talks with employers, he said.

What's more, Sullivan added, companies in Europe are more likely to encourage workers to take at least two-week breaks at a time because they have seen an increase in work-stress-related absences and are increasingly concerned about potential litigation or long-term sickness or disabilities that result from work-related stress. Top of page