Vacation doesn’t work for Amer­i­cans

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two - By Gabriella Bos­ton

We need them emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally, yet we re­ject them. No, not our spouses. Our va­ca­tions.

Amer­i­cans not only get the least amount of vacation in the West­ern world, we don’t even take all we’re al­lot­ted. On top of that, we don’t have any le­gal guar­an­tee to vacation, which is un­heard of in Europe — world­wide, 137 coun­tries have guar­an­teed paid vacation.

This year, we plan to leave at least three of our 14 paid vacation days (on av­er­age) in limbo, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey by Ex­pe­ Com­bined, Amer­i­cans will give back 460 mil­lion vacation days in 2008.

What’s wrong with us? Why are we re­ject­ing free­dom?

The an­swer is com­plex. It has to do with ev­ery­thing from cul­tural her­itage and laws to work­place men­tal­ity and money (or lack thereof).

“We have a Pu­ri­tan work ethic. We want to be seen as hard work­ers,” says Tim Kasser, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Knox Col­lege in Gales­burg, Ill. “We’re afraid of be­ing per­ceived as slack­ers.”

Not only that, our iden­ti­ties are so closely tied to what we do — as op­posed to who we are — that for some it’s hard to leave the pro­fes­sional iden­tity be­hind, even if just for a week or two.

“Va­ca­tions can make peo­ple with A-type per­son­al­i­ties feel worth­less,” says Joe Robin­son, au­thor of “Work to Live.”

We’re also afraid that if we take a long vacation — say more than a week — we’ll just come back to desks and com­put­ers packed with snail mail and e-mail, cre­at­ing more stress than it’s worth, says John de Graaf, au­thor of “Take Back Your Time,” to which Mr. Kasser con­trib­uted a chap­ter.

“Work has be­come a lot more de­mand­ing,” Mr. de Graaf says.

“The level of stress and the pres­sures on pro­duc­tiv­ity just keep in­creas­ing,” he says, adding that peo­ple have a hard time com­pletely dis­en­gag­ing even when not in the of­fice.

In fact, ac­cord­ing to the Ex­pe­ sur­vey, about 24 per­cent of work­ers re­ported they check work e-mail and voice mail while va­ca­tion­ing. That fig­ure was up from 16 per­cent in 2005.

“We have a cul­tural at­ti­tude that glo­ri­fies work and pro­duc­tiv­ity,” Mr. de Graaf says. It’s not just cul­tural, how­ever. It’s mone­tary, too. There’s talk of a re­ces­sion, gas prices are up, and per­sonal debt is sky-high. Who can af­ford to take a vacation, par­tic­u­larly the 28 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who, ac­cord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton-based Cen­ter for Eco­nomic Pol­icy Re­search, don’t get any paid vacation?

“Per­sonal debt is a great driver,” Mr. de Graaf says. “Con­sumerism — which debt is a part of — pushes Amer­i­cans to work harder.”

Adds Mr. Robin­son: “A gen­er­a­tion ago, peo­ple took two weeks or more. [. . . ] Now we con­sider the long week­end a vacation,” he says. “But it doesn’t pro­vide the re­cu­per­a­tive [ben­e­fits] that a longer stretch of time would.”

You need more than three days to wind down and then wind back up again, Mr. Kasser says, sug­gest­ing that a week is needed for that process alone.

“What va­ca­tions do — and what time af­flu­ence does more broadly — is give peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity to re­store them­selves to their needs,” says Mr. Kasser, who stud­ies the ef­fects of “time af­flu­ence,” or free time, on peo­ple’s well-be­ing.

Of­fers Mr. Robin­son: “It’s not an over­state­ment to say that tak­ing va­ca­tions [is] as im­por­tant as watch­ing our choles­terol and blood pres­sure.” Ill health, he adds, is con­nected with a lack of dis­pos­able time.

It’s true, Amer­i­cans would not score well in a health olympics. For one, the U.S. obe­sity rate is more than twice as high as that in Europe, ac­cord­ing to the Oc­to­ber is­sue of the jour­nal Health Af­fairs.

Peo­ple who are time-af­flu­ent — and take va­ca­tions — are bet­ter able to sat­isfy their psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal needs, Mr. Kasser says, liken­ing va­ca­tions to plant food.

“A plant can go for a while with­out any wa­ter or sun,” Mr. Kasser says, “but over time, it’s go­ing to die.”

Let’s not just blame the work­ers. The gov­ern­ment and em­ploy­ers are guilty, too.

“We’re stuck in a sys­tem that con­tin­u­ally primes the value of money,” Mr. Kasser says. “We need to de­velop an­other model for af­flu­ence.”

His goal is to help re­for­mu­late the Amer­i­can dream to be­come the dream of amass­ing time af­flu­ence as op­posed to money af­flu­ence.

Mr. de Graaf is work­ing on get­ting a bill in­tro­duced into Congress next year that would give work­ers manda­tory three-week va­ca­tions. Un­less laws change, cul­ture likely won’t change ei­ther, he rea­sons.

The cor­po­rate world can do its share, too, Mr. Robin­son says.

“It’s go­ing to be­come clear to com­pa­nies that va­ca­tions are the best things they can do to en­er­gize their em­ploy­ees,” he says.

Fi­nally, time, fit­tingly, will do its share to im­prove the state of vacation in the coun­try that the Cen­ter for Eco­nomic Pol­icy Re­search has dubbed the no-vacation na­tion.

“Com­pa­nies are find­ing out that Gen­er­a­tion Y [and X] is dif­fer­ent. They value bal­ance,” Mr. Robin­son says. “Baby-boom lead­ers are re­tir­ing. That’s our best hope.”

David Clark / Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Times

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