Give Us a Break

Starved for time off, American workers keep getting sicker, sadder, and less productive

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This article is one of several on reclaiming rest in all aspects of our lives. For more, read  Get Radical. Get Some Rest. ,  Breaking It to Your Boss ,  Want to Get Away, Stay Home ,  Sleep Tips: Age Matters , and  The No Wake Zone .

Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson’s character in the 1980 film The Shining, should get credit for popularizing (and making terrifying) a proverb that dates back to the 1600s: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Nicholson’s character sure looked like he could have used a vacation before his psyche disintegrated and he went on a murderous rampage.

In the real world, the danger isn’t that we’ll start obsessively typing proverbs at the Overlook Hotel before taking an ax to the door, but that our country’s hardworking denizens will keep getting sicker, sadder, and less productive.

Medical and poll-based evidence indicates that we seriously need relief. Work-related stress can lead to heart attacks, obesity, anxiety, and depression. A 2004 World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School study put the United States at the top of the list of depressed countries, while the Gallup-Healthways Daily Happiness-Stress Index finds that the only consistent upswing in mood occurs when Americans get some time off on the weekends or holidays.

As John de Graaf, executive director of the Seattle-based advocacy group Take Back Your Time, puts it, Americans are “time-starved and vacation-starved.”

Americans put in more hours at work than the people of any other nation, surpassing even the Japanese. We average nine more weeks of labor per year than our working counterparts in Western Europe, many of whom get 20 paid days of vacation each year.

Finland tops the list of vacation-supporting industrialized nations with 30 paid vacation days a year after the first year of work, according to a May 2007 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Canada and Japan are near the bottom of that list, with a legal minimum of 10 vacation days. The United States has the dubious distinction of being the only industrialized nation that does not have a mandatory minimum of vacation time. In fact, out of the 173 countries studied, 137 have some kind of vacation/annual leave legislation in place.

De Graaf, an independent filmmaker with a long list of social-consciousness-raising documentaries under his belt, including the PBS documentary Affluenza, considers the need for mandatory vacation time a bipartisan issue, although he’s aware that Republicans are more likely to object to national legislation. Even some Democrats, he says, think he is overdramatizing the situation: Aren’t there more pressing social justice issues—say, poverty, health care, and ethnic/gender disparities—for us to worry about?       

“I’ve been told by a few prominent progressive activists that, while they’re personally supportive of what we’re trying to accomplish, they’re not willing to get involved because this is really a white, middle-class issue,” he says. “ ‘You couldn’t be more wrong,’ is what I tell them.”

In July 2008, Take Back Your Time released its findings from a telephone sample of 1,002 U.S. adults. The poll revealed that more than two-thirds of Americans would support the passage of a paid vacation law. Most enthusiastic about vacation-time legislation were African Americans (89 percent), Hispanic Americans (82 percent), people earning low incomes (82 percent), women (75 percent, versus 63 percent for men), and families with children (74 percent).

De Graaf was not shocked that such strong support came from low-income communities and communities of color. (One hundred percent of African American respondents indicated that some vacation time is necessary to avoid burnout.)

“When you’re poor, you’re socially excluded,” de Graaf says. “When you’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet, you know how important it is to have [downtime] with your loved ones.”

But downtime is harder and harder to come by. According to the group’s poll, 52 percent of working Americans took less than a week of paid vacation in the previous year—28 percent took none at all—while 65 percent of workers took less than two paid weeks off.

The result? Too much hard work really does hurt and even kill people. Unlike the Japanese and the Chinese, we haven’t yet given death-by-overwork its own moniker (karoshi and guolaosi, respectively), much less enacted national legislation that allows surviving family members to sue over the workplace conditions that lead to overwork-related deaths (as Japan and Korea have).

In Japan, the typical image of a karoshi victim is a businessman who dies at his desk after too many 80-hour workweeks. But several studies have shown that while both sexes are at high risk for overwork consequences—heart disease, obesity, insomnia, and persistent fatigue—women are far more likely to suffer mental health consequences, especially when they do not take vacations.

Roughly one woman in five reports taking a vacation only once every six years, according to a 2005 study funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. A recent Harris survey explains this, in part: Nearly four women in ten who earn less than $40,000 annually receive no paid vacation whatsoever.

Things haven’t always been this bad. Workers’ lives have gone from bad to better to bad all over again. The industrial revolution brought extreme working conditions. The late 1800s saw the beginning of an epic workers’ battle for the eight-hour day. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage, but most Americans don’t know that lawmakers also considered guaranteeing vacation time.

It’s high time to enact a national policy to ensure that we don’t have to feel guilty—or fearful about losing our jobs—for taking time off, de Graaf says: “We need the right to have that time off. Otherwise, we won’t have the [energy to power the] imagination we need to better ourselves and our communities.”

 

Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times, a progressive monthly committed to political and economic democracy. This article was excerpted from the November 2008 issue; www.inthesetimes.com.