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No-Vacation Nation

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Americans are getting fewer and fewer days off. This lack of paid vacation, say many experts, doesn’t just translate into less time spent at the beach. An unhealthy work-life balance affects not only our health and well-being, but our families and our society as a whole. Here’s what we can do about it.

Last February, after delivering a lecture at the University of Florida, I was dismayed to discover that my flight home from Jacksonville to Seattle was canceled. Not wanting to spend the night in an airport, I found an inexpensive chain motel nearby. At the reception desk, the soft-spoken, middle-aged clerk asked how I was. “Not so good,” I replied. “My flight was just canceled. How are you?”

“Well, I’m not so good either,” she said. “My vacation was just canceled — for the seventh year in a row.”

What’s up with this, I wanted to know. She explained that she’d been working at the hotel for 12 years, and her contract called for two weeks of paid vacation a year. For the first five years, she’d been able to take them. But then the hotel cut staff, and every year since then they’d told her they had no replacement and couldn’t let her go. Instead, they gave her two extra weeks of pay. “I can use the money,” she explained with a sigh. “After all, I’m working as a hotel clerk, and I’m a single mom. But I need the time even more. I’m going nuts, but I can’t quit this job. I’ve got a son who’s starting college next fall and no other options.”

She told me she was Native American and used to spend her two weeks off going to powwows with her friends. It meant a lot to her — the camaraderie, the cultural identity, the fun of dancing. But now she was able to attend only an occasional powwow, for just a day.

She said all this with a certain resignation and considerable inner strength. There were no tears, and her voice didn’t crack. But I suspect she was aching inside. And I wondered just how many other workers voice similar complaints in a country that one report by the Center for Economic Policy Research has called “No-Vacation Nation.”

America the Merciless

Americans get the shortest vacations in the industrial world — when they get them at all. A recent Harris poll found that only 14 percent of Americans were taking the traditional two-week summer vacation in 2007. Another survey completed by Gallup on behalf of The Conference Board, a corporate think tank, found that 40 percent of Americans didn’t take even a single week off as a block in 2006. More and more of us take what vacation days we have one by one, here and there, and use them to catch up on the errands for which our ever-increasing work demands leave little time.

Americans may be materially richer than almost anyone else, but we have the poorest health in the industrial world, despite spending far more per capita on healthcare than any other country. In 1980, we ranked 11th in the world in longevity; now we’re 42nd. We are twice as likely as Europeans to suffer from anxiety and depression. In large part, these deficits are caused by a lack of time. Overwork means we spend less time with friends and family, and less time exercising or eating healthily.

Although American workers are promised an average of about two weeks of vacation a year, according to Expedia.com they give back about three days, on average, to their employers, mostly because they feel they’ll be seen as slackers if they take all their time (and therefore singled out in the next round of layoffs) or because they simply don’t want to return to an inbox filled with emails.

Of those who do take vacations, studies show that at least a third take their work with them, a habit made easier by cell phones, laptops and the Internet. A quarter of American workers receive no paid time off at all, a situation virtually unheard of in the rest of the developed world. All other industrial countries — and 137 nations around the world in all — guarantee, by law, an average of four weeks paid vacation a year. In every European country, workers receive a minimum of four weeks after the first year on the job. The average vacation time is closer to six weeks, and in some countries like Finland and Austria, that’s the minimum.

Americans who talk with Europeans about this difference in vacation allotments often receive a common incredulous response: “Are you Americans crazy or what?”

Lesley McClurg, who is working with me on a PBS documentary about vacations, returned recently from a bicycle trip in Spain. “The Spanish people on the trip didn’t even believe me when I said Americans only get about two weeks off,” McClurg told me. “They thought I was lying.”

Another friend, travel-guru Rick Steves of PBS fame, told me he’s had to cut back the length of his tours because Americans seem to have less and less time off. “When I started, we were doing 22-day trips,” Steves says. “Now our average is 13 days, and a lot of people want one-week tours.”

Vacations, clearly, are not about slacking. Almost everywhere else in the world, people understand that taking time off from work results in improved health, family life, productivity, creativity and personal well-being.

Take a Break — or Be Broken

In his book, Work to Live (Perigree, 2003), Joe Robinson, a former Los Angeles Times outdoor writer who is now a life-balance trainer for corporations and government agencies, provides data from several studies indicating that people who take vacations are less likely to experience heart attacks or other illnesses than those who don’t. “But it only starts to work that way when you take at least a two-week block of time,” says Robinson.

“Men reduce their risk of a heart attack by 30 percent and women by 50,” he adds, citing data from the ongoing Framingham Heart Study and a State University of New York at Oswego study. “There seems to be no positive effect when you just take a day off here and there. It may help you de-stress a little mentally, but it doesn’t reduce your risk of heart failure. You need a block of time to do that.”

A 2006 comparison of chronic illness among people aged 55 and over in the United States and the United Kingdom confirms Robinson’s conclusions. Despite being among the least healthy people in time-rich Europe, older residents of the UK are only about half as likely as their peers in the United States to have chronic diseases associated with age, such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Their longer vacations and shorter working hours seem to be the prime reasons, resulting in less stress than Americans experience, while leaving more time for exercise and especially for socializing with friends and family.

More Than Fond Memories

The importance of strong relationships in promoting health is increasingly recognized as a critical issue in public-health circles. And vacations are some of our biggest opportunities for relationship building. For example, I still remember traveling with my dad on two-week road trips or backpacking adventures when I was a kid. The details remain vibrant after 45 or 50 years.

William Doherty, PhD, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, believes vacations provide powerful bonding opportunities for parents and children. He says the time spent together as a family on vacation often is what adults remember most about their childhood. What Doherty observes was true for me, and I’m sure it will be true for my son as well.

Of course, there are many other life-enriching experiences that come from our getaways. Much of my lifelong concern for the environment, for example, also came from those early family adventures in the natural world.

Research by Leaf Van Boven, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing and behavioral science at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, N.Y., suggests that the kinds of experiences people have while on vacation contribute more than what material possessions contribute to their happiness. His advice: “Instead of ˙ buying that new dress, take a vacation,” he advises.

Indeed, psychologists are finding little correlation between life satisfaction and increases in the Gross National Product that come from an emphasis on producing and consuming. On the other hand, having more time for friends and family consistently improves people’s subjective sense of well-being.

Psychologist Tim Kasser, PhD, of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., has been researching what he calls “time affluence.” He has compared students’ experiences at points during the semester when they had plenty of time versus times when they felt rushed and overburdened. His findings, while preliminary, show significant correlations between increasing time affluence and life satisfaction, while “time poverty” correlates powerfully with unhappiness and poorer health outcomes.

The Upside for Business

Vacations actually make workers more productive, says Robinson, who has encountered a number of companies, including many small businesses, that have seen profits rise since they initiated three-week vacations for their workers.

That comes as no surprise to Cornell’s Van Boven. He finds that vacations often result in positive work outcomes, especially for people who work primarily with information. “If I take a week’s vacation and have some creative ideas, that’s of real value to my job,” he says.

Despite all this, Van Boven doubts that American businesses are likely to embrace the notion that vacations can be a win-win for workers and employers. “As a society we are a long way from placing high value on extended vacations,” he says. “For one thing, workers are afraid to ask for more time off. No one wants to say they want more vacation. Even if most workers do want more vacation time, they may think other workers and employers don’t, so they keep their wishes to themselves.”

The problem can partly be solved “by making our preferences more well known,” Van Boven adds. And enlightened employers can eliminate their workers’ fear of taking or requesting time. “If you want to invest in your employees’ well-being, you can communicate that everyone ought to take more vacation,” he suggests. “Make your concerns and norms explicit.”

Vacation Legislation

Even though more vacation clearly seems to do good things for all involved parties, Robinson thinks things will change only when the United States has a law mandating paid vacations, like every other industrial country. For several years, he has been seeking to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to add vacation rights to its minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.

Most recently, Robinson and the activist organization I founded, Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org), have proposed a bill called The Minimum Leave Protection, Family Bonding and Personal Well-Being Act of 2007. The bill, which Robinson drafted, calls for an annual, federally mandated three-week paid vacation for all workers.

The idea of significant amounts of vacation time is hardly a new one for Americans, notes Cindy Aron, a professor of history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1999). In 1913, President William Howard Taft suggested that all workers get two to three months off annually to restore themselves. Eleanor Roosevelt also championed vacations and argued that they didn’t need to be expensive to be valuable. She promoted “camping and tramping” (i.e., backpacking) as ways for even poor Americans to enjoy holidays.

The struggle for vacation time comes down to a question of values. What is our economy for, anyway? What is progress for? If what we’re trying to do is improve our quality of life, then it’s time we acknowledged that vacations really do matter. It’s time we devoted a little more of our vaunted productivity to them — even if it means choosing time over stuff.

This shift would be a welcome relief to millions of stressed-out Americans. And when it comes to building a healthier country, there may be no better place to start.

John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker, coauthor of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Berrett-Koehler, 2005) and president of Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org). He is currently working on a documentary about vacations.