Do Americans Work Too Much?

The economy may have boomed in recent years, but most Americans are ready to bust. You don’t hear much about that, with the national PR machine breathlessly trumpeting the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history. But behind the doors of the apartments, ranch houses, and brownstones of the real folks who fuel this economy, there is a different story, one of contraction–lives and family and free time swallowed whole by work without end. Ask most working Americans how things are really going and you’ll hear stories of burnout and quiet desperation, of 50- and 60-hour weeks with no letup in sight. The United States has now passed Japan as the industrialized world’s most overworked land. In total hours, Americans work two weeks longer than the Japanese each year, two whole months longer than the Germans. On top of that, while Europeans and Australians are able to relieve the grind with four to six weeks of paid vacation each year guaranteed by law, Americans average a paltry nine days off after the first year on the job (and that’s totally dependent on the whims of employers). If you need some time to tend to an illness in the family or paint the house, your vacation time is pretty much shot. Forget about Tuscany, Yosemite, or even a few days at a nearby state park.

In the spring, Escape, the travel magazine I edit, launched a campaign to try to roll back the new Industrial Revolution time clock and open a national debate on America’s biggest sacred cow: work. Mind you, as an entrepreneur and business owner myself, I’ve got nothing against the work ethic. It’s the crazed, psychotic overwork ethic that needs a pink slip. We here at Escape have formed a committee called Work to Live, whose goal is to increase vacation time in the United States–to three weeks by law after the first year on the job, and four weeks after three years.

I expected to hear a lot of snickers and name-calling from the overwork and anti-law zealots–you know, “slacker, socialist, utopianist.” But I heard far more shouts of approval. I soon found myself in Time magazine, on the Today Show, and on NBC’s Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Support for the campaign has poured in from across the country, as workers by the thousands have logged on to the Escape Web site (www.escapemag. com) to sign our petition to Congress for more vacation time (see page 55). Workers and travelers of America, Unite. We have nothing to lose but our stress.

As a longtime traveler, I first became aware that the United States wasn’t number one in everything after encountering far too many Germans, Brits, and Danes gallivanting the globe for five and six weeks a year. (In Denmark two years ago, unions staged a nationwide general strike for a sixth week of vacation and settled for two extra days a year, plus three additional personal days for workers with young children.) We eke out 9.6 days at large U.S. companies after one year, 16 after 10 years; at small business operations (where the vast majority of us work these days) it’s 8 days after a year, 16 after 25 years! But that’s only part of the story. There’s the drowning number of hours–according to the Families and Work Institute, 49 hours is the weekly average for men (and 42 for women), which adds up to an extra three months on the job each year beyond the alleged 40-hour week.

“The gap between Europe and America seems to be growing,” says a baffled Orvar Löfgren, a professor at Lund University in Sweden and author of an excellent history of vacations, On Holiday (University of California, 1999). “I’m a bit amazed at this, because Americans love having fun.”

So where did we go wrong?

Americans started out on a level playing field with Europeans, with a week to two weeks in the ’30s, when paid vacations were first introduced, says Löfgren. But “there was a decision made at some stage: Do you want more pay or longer vacations? The unions in Europe went for longer vacations. The state in many European countries was very much concerned that vacations were good for you, that everyone should have holidays, that there should be legislation about vacation time. I don’t think the state played the same role in the United States.”

After that the Europeans shot ahead of us, adding a week more vacation in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. As a result, Swedes get five weeks off by law, plus another two weeks during the Christmas holidays. And don’t forget the paid public holidays, he reminds me, which are far more frequent around the world.

Meanwhile, we are spending more time on the job than in past decades. The husband and wife in a typical U.S. household are now working 500 more hours a year than they did in 1980, according to Eileen Appelbaum, research director at the Economic Policy Institute. Absenteeism due to job stress has tripled in the past five years. So has the number of people calling in sick who aren’t, a phenomenon called “entitlement mentality”: Workers are using sick time to take the days off they feel they deserve.

Clearly, we have hit the wall. If we have no time for family and friends, no time to enjoy, explore, refresh, and recreate, no time to think that there could be, should be something more, what exactly do we have?

One tired nation. Estimates are that about half of all U.S. workers suffer from symptoms of burnout. Pam Ammondson, author of Clarity Quest (Fireside, 1999), sees the wreckage in her Santa Rosa, California-based Clarity Quest workshops, designed to help people suffering from burnout reclaim their lives: “I see a lot of people who work 12 to 14 hours a day routinely,” she says. “They want to make a change, but they’re too tired to know how to do it. Overwhelmed is a word they use a lot. . . . We allow downtime for machinery for maintenance and repair, but we don’t allow it for the employees.”

The health implications of sleep-deprived motorists weaving their way to the office or operating machinery on the job are self-evident. One study conducted by the American Psychosomatic Society found that men age 35 to 57 who took annual vacations were 21 percent less likely to die young than nonvacationers and 32 percent less likely to die of coronary heart disease.

We all play our part in this marathon of overwork, seduced by the culture into believing that who we are is what we do. It’s this lack of a non-work identity that allows so many of us to be consumed by the workaholic frenzy. “Americans compared to almost any other society are encouraged to achieve and display identity through labor,” explains Mark Liechty, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Most Americans labor to consume and construct the self.” In Europe, he points out, there’s more of a separation between identity and work; work life is “subordinate to other kinds of social spheres.”

The leading casualty of all this is our time, that commodity we seemed to have so much of back in sixth grade, when the clock on the wall never seemed to move. Time is the fastener of friendship and family; it gives us the space to explore more than a button on the snooze alarm. Without it, we’re a nation of strangers, even to those closest to us–and to ourselves. Families are taking a beating.

“People are spending less time with their family,” observes Barry Miller, a career counselor at Pace University in New York. “They’re not taking the time to rejuvenate and connect with their family members. Intimate relationships are falling apart, their relationships with their children are falling apart.”

I used to think that the issue of vacation time was complicated. There’s the almost religious stigma in America against government regulating the private sector, the pressure on runaway consumers to support their shopping habits, and the paranoia that global competitors would outpace our economy if we took half the time off that they do. But they’re all just excuses and pretexts that crumble with a hard look at the facts. Business, for instance, can be regulated for the good of the citizenry without jeopardizing profits. Some of the most basic tenets of the working world come out of federal legislation, from Social Security to the minimum wage to the 40-hour week–passed by Congress in 1938 as the Fair Labor Standards Act. Business was dragged kicking and screaming every time, but today these laws enjoy universal support.

Some on the left hold that we don’t really want the extra time, because we’re too busy consuming goods and running up our credit cards. Yet a survey by the Families and Work Institute found that 64 percent of Americans want to work less, up from 47 percent in 1992. As for the threat of instant economic demise once Americans get real vacations, it doesn’t appear that the Swiss or Swedish economies are in danger of immediate collapse. In fact, Löfgren points out that 25 percent of Swedes are able to afford second homes in the countryside.

When I raised the vacation issue in an article six years ago, some irate letter writers predicted that the Asian Tigers–Korea, Thailand, Taiwan–would eat us up if we “gave” any more vacation time. A few economic meltdowns later, we’re not too worried about those Tigers anymore. We’re blowing away the world’s economies and have the lowest unemployment in 30 years. Why are we so insecure? What’s the point of being an economic superpower if we don’t have time for anything but more work?

Another impediment to rational discussion in this debate is the idea that employers are giving something away with vacation leave. But it’s just the opposite. “In essence, companies get more for their money,” says employment counselor Barry Miller. “Not only are they going to get more productive employees, but they’re also going to get retention and loyalty. My stepson got a week off for paternity leave from his company. He is so loyal to them, he’ll never leave. He has more of a commitment to them because they have an interest in him.”

And besides, it’s not a giveback so much as a rightful return of a fraction of the hours already burned up by routine 50-hour weeks. “Within most large companies, the long-hours culture permeates the way things are done, and the level of stress is high,” says Mindy Fried of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College. “People are incredibly burned out.” Fried has just released a study showing that flexible hours can help take some of “the steam out of the kettle.”

Providing a decent amount of time off also makes good business sense. Employees who are burned out make costly errors, they rack up sick days, they quit or get fired, and companies have to spend extra money to train new employees. SAS Institute, a North Carolina-based software company, has reportedly saved “tens of millions” of dollars in turnover costs with an employee-friendly policy of no overtime and a 35-hour week, according to a study reported in The New York Times.

Opponents of a mandated vacation law always trot out the myth that it would hurt productivity. While the United States does rule in productivity, it’s not by much compared to Germany, for instance. The difference in output per hour is almost negligible, and Germans manage to do it in two months less work. Think about that one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 1992 to 1998, France and Sweden, both five-week- vacation lands, matched or surpassed the annual U.S. increase in output per hour while working vastly fewer hours.

Another common misperception is that American business would never accept Euro-style multiweek vacations. Well, it already is. Four-week vacation packages for upper management are routine at major U.S. companies. And workers with special and highly coveted skills, like high-tech experts, negotiate lengthy vacation into their contracts. We just need to spread the wealth.

It’s important to note that with national legislation, no company will find itself at a disadvantage by establishing humane vacation policies. In Sweden, for instance, there’s no possibility of Volvo gaining a competitive advantage over Saab by offering less vacation. All employers must follow the same law. A standardized national system also eliminates the current penalties against people who change jobs, who can’t bring the vacation benefits accrued at their last company to the new one, where they usually have to start at ground zero again: one or two weeks. In an era when people are changing jobs as often as cars, this may be one of the best arguments of all for a national vacation policy.

I’d like to leave it to the free market to work all this out. But the market does what’s best for itself–as reflected on the next quarterly report–not what’s best, or even logical, for the long-term health of the human capital that is its foundation. If six-day weeks and no time off was considered abusive in the 19th century and laws were required to make things better, the situation is equally exploitive today and also requires legislative redress. Just as we need traffic signs at intersections, we also need them in the workplace, or we’ll keep getting run over.

Which brings us to what we must do: amend the Fair Labor Standards Act so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks off, increasing to four weeks after three years. That’s our policy at Escape, and that’s what Work to Live is pressing for. We’re in the middle of a campaign to gather as many signatures as possible to present to Congress, proving there is an enthusiastic constituency for working to live, not just living to work. We want to create a national Internet meeting hall for supporters of the cause. We’re looking for progressive companies to join with us, as well as activists who can lend their talents to turning this tide of citizen support into public policy.

It’s going to take a massive grassroots effort over the long term to move the cause of more vacation time forward, but the outpouring of supportive e-mails and media coverage since we started our campaign tells me the time is ripe for a restructuring of work and life. The time crunch is affecting everyone, and people want out. They want their lives back.

One e-mail to the Escape Web site was from a 35-year-old man who’d had a heart attack his doctor blamed 100 percent on stress. It might not have happened, the doctor said, if he had had three weeks off. An e-mailer who works for Frito-Lay wondered how he’s ever going to make it to retirement working six-day weeks, seldom with two days off in a row. A woman at wit’s end told me on a radio call-in show in Lexington, Kentucky, that she’s worked at an agricultural company for seven years, six days a week, and gets only one week of vacation.

This is what leaving workplace hours to the market has wrought. But, for once, time is on our side. Eight economic boom years have created a nearly full-employment economy and unprecedented opportunity to address the vacation issue. Companies are scrambling to find employees. It’s a seller’s market that has created more confident, outspoken workers, who for the first time in decades are speaking up for their share of the productivity dividend that seems only to go into executives’ pockets.

And there’s one more auspicious sign. It’s a national political season. There are votes to be won, candidates to be grilled on where they stand on the quality-of-life issue of vacation time. I made a few calls to see if any of the presidential contenders was brave enough, or smart enough, to address the issue. Surprisingly, I found plenty of support–at the worker-bee level. At George W. Bush’s headquarters, for instance, an aide answered my pitch for a mandated three-week vacation with: “That sounds great. We need that here.”

None of the candidates had a position on vacation time, not surprisingly, since it had never come up before. Vice President Al Gore had no comment. (Editor’s Note: An Utne Reader staffer passed a version of this story to Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader at a campaign appearance. Nader responded, “I can get behind that.” He and his staff are now exploring the issue but had made no endorsement at the time we went to press.) Of course, even if the candidates had studied the issue, supporting more time off would initially seem a colossally stupid move–anti-business and instant fund-raising suicide.

Courage among politicians is a little like El Niño: It only shows up when heat is applied. That’s where we come in. Let’s turn up the temperature on candidates, Congress members, and local officials. Send e-mail and faxes, make phone calls, hit their Web sites, write letters to the editor.

While there’s no doubt that we’re the home of the brave–a nation ready to work till it drops–can we really be the land of the free when we’re on the chain gang 50 weeks a year? I asked Orvar Löfgren to imagine what it would be like for him in the American vacation system, no five to seven weeks off, just that long tunnel of 11 and a half months of work every year stretching to the grave. He considered the possibility: “I would think, how could I survive? I would feel claustrophobic. It’s a question of priorities. In Europe, vacations have become a basic facet of the quality of life.”

Why not here? We’ve lost sight in the overwork hysteria of what makes it all worthwhile– the time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. What’s the point of it all if there’s no time to live but only to exist? Having time for family, friends, exploring, reflecting, hiking–these are the things that give meaning to life. I don’t think at the end of our days we’re going to be looking back on that great 80-hour week we pulled back in ’99. It’s going to be the time playing ball with a kid, snorkeling off Maui, lingering over coffee in a sidewalk café–the time when we had time, the most precious natural resource of all.

A wise man once told me that the fear of dying is really just the fear of never having lived.

Let’s leave no doubt about it. Viva vacations!

Joe Robinson is the editor and publisher of Escape magazine. Adapted from Escape (April 2000).

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