Can you really be a productive employee if you want to take three full weeks off? Americans like to work…a lot. We, however, just don’t like the work we do, or who we do it for. Maybe it’s time to reframe how we see vacation.

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The governments of Germany, Australia and Japan require employers to offer four weeks or more of paid vacation to workers. This is according to a study by the human resources consulting firm Mercer. Finland, Brazil and France guarantee six weeks off.

Are you jealous? Or are you secretly thinking there are a bunch of slackers in the world? Who needs that much time on a beach, right?

In the United States, we could point fingers at the government or at employers who don’t offer paid vacation. But, maybe, we should be pointing our fingers at something much bigger — our culture that believes, at its core, that the harder we work, the more we will succeed.

Here’s the caveat: There’s actually no proof that working harder (and not taking time off) leads to greater success.

In reviewing the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies, the United States came in fourth. Sweden, which mandates five weeks of paid time off, came in second. And, these studies don’t account for the personal burdens that accompany never taking time off.

The truth, in fact, is that vacations are necessary to well-being and performance. Clinical psychologist Francine Lederer, who specializes in stress and relationship management, said, “The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound. Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation.”

But, still, a three-week vacation? Can you really be a passionate, engaged, productive employee if you want to take three full weeks off? Doesn’t it, at least inside our American psyche, feel a little bit like a lack of commitment?

Enter the big twist and ever-so-confusing conundrum about how we as Americans feel about vacation.

A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies reveals that working more makes Americans happier than it does Europeans. The study’s author, Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said, “Americans maximize their… (happiness) by working, and Europeans maximize their (happiness) through leisure.”

These findings feel spot on. Work to many of us, and especially long days full of hard work, is a symbolic source of pride.

Yes, we say we like to work. According to research firm Ipsos, only 57 percent of Americans use all the paid vacation they’re offered from their employer. And, considering that the average worker in the United States gets 13 days of paid vacation each year, it would be easy to assume that our productivity levels must be sky high.

Go ahead and puff up your chest with pride. Americans like to work … a lot.

We, however, just don’t like the work we do, or who we do it for.

The big twist to this whole scenario is the variety of studies that show just how disengaged we are at work. The widely known workplace study by Gallup reveals that nearly 70 percent of us are not engaged in our work. And a joint survey conducted by Yahoo! Finance and Parade magazine of 26,000 Americans found that almost 60 percent would choose a different career.

How is it possible to be so anti-vacation and anti-work at the same time? Maybe it’s time to reframe how we see vacation.

If you’re smiling right now and thinking “This seemingly contradictory information is ironic, because it’s exactly how I feel — I’m not fully satisfied at work, but can’t bring myself to take extra time away from the office,” then we’ve got some advice.

According research by Forbes Insights and the O.C. Tanner Institute, one of the five things people who accomplish “great work” do is get out into the world to see for themselves how things work.

If you’re struggling with the guilt of taking time away from work this summer, try this:

1. Aim at discovery: Take a current issue with you to see if you can find new insights by watching how other cultures, groups or companies may handle the situation. An insurance agent could learn from a boat skipper: how to lead clients through new and confusing policy terrain. Or if you’re one of those people who is truly searching for a new career or endeavor, a vacation is a great place to discover your passion — do you like structured tours, daydreaming on the beach for new ideas or heading into town to mix with the locals? Pay special attention to what attracts you on your vacation, and see if you can find correlating aspects in your work.

2. Aim at accomplishment: If the desire to accomplish something is engrained deep into our American psyche, then learn to use it to your advantage. Many people we know will plan vacations around sporting events like marathons or mountain bike racing. Some will plan vacation destinations like they were trophies: “I’ve skied all seven peaks of a mountain range.”

Maybe we as Americans will never fully learn how to embrace a vacation like those in other countries. But even if you have to force yourself to unplug, recharge and regroup, we suggest you use your vacation time — because you earned it. Think about that while your toes are in the sand.

David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom work with the O.C. Tanner Institute. Learn more about The New York Times bestseller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill) at