Time Off for the Overworked American

Remember riding hip to hip with your brothers and sisters in the back of the family van, eating the snacks too soon, fighting over the music selection, losing tiny, indispensable pieces of travel games? Or maybe your family was not of the road trip ilk. Perhaps you remember exciting trips on airplanes, a special pin from the stewardess, watching the clouds take shape out of your own oval window, your grandparents waiting feverishly for your arrival in the sprawling Portland or Poughkeepsie or even Paris airport.

As much as you may have resented it then, the family vacation is as quintessentially American as homemade apple pie. It is also just about as rare in this age of store-bought desserts and workaholism.

Last year, 25 percent of American workers got no paid vacation at all, while 43 percent didn't even take a solid week off. A third fewer American families take vacations together today than they did in 1970. American workers receive the least vacation time among wealthy industrial nations. And it is no thanks to the U.S. government --127 other countries in the world have a vacation law. We -- the crackberry denizens and Protestant ethic superstars -- do not.

A growing movement of nonprofits, citizen advocacy groups, and trade associations is trying to change all that. Take Back Your Time, a national organization with over 10,000 members, has declared getting a federal vacation law that guarantees Americans at least three week paid vacation a top priority issue in 2007. They are joined by Joe Robinson, author of the 2003 book Work to Live and a work/life balance coach, and the Adventure Travel Trade Association, among others.

This is not just a plea for more beach time. It is a movement that recognizes that Americans' lives are diminished by our work-above-all-else orientation. Dissatisfaction with work/life balance cuts across class boundaries, leaving too many Americans feeling estranged from the things they believe are most important -- family, friends, wellbeing, spiritual practice. In what journalist Keith H. Hammonds calls our "postbalance world," most Americans live their lives in unsatisfying feast or famine. Unfortunately, there is more famine when it comes to relaxation, exploration, and rejuvenation these days -- no thanks to federal policy. John Schmitt, senior economist and co-author of "No-Vacation Nation," a recent study by the Center for Economic Policy Research, says, "It's a national embarrassment that 28 million Americans don’t get any paid vacation or paid holidays."

We don't get much time at home, and at work, we feel significantly unsupported. In the latest Pew Research Center survey on work, a near majority of workers (45 percent) now says benefits are worse than they had been 20 or 30 years ago. This includes a gamut of policies -- health care, paternity leave, flextime -- all of which America is pathetically behind other industrialized countries in legislating. There has certainly been a growing conversation about these issues, thanks to the mothers' movement led by groups like MomsRising, but legislated vacation time is often last on the list of demands. (Not so surprising when you consider how difficult it is for most mothers to believe they deserve a rest.)

Not only does less vacation time mean we have less time to develop our most critical and lasting relationships with family members and friends, but our physical health is in jeopardy when we refuse to unchain ourselves from the cubicle. Vacations cut down on stress, which any medical expert will tell you is at the center of so many of America's most pernicious health crises. Two researchers at the State University of New York at Oswego showed that an annual vacation can cut the risk of death from heart disease in women by 50 percent and in men by 32 percent. Taking time out, exploring new horizons, getting away from your desk and moving around, reconnecting with close friends and family are all safeguards against burnout and depression. But this kind of rejuvenation takes time -- two weeks, most studies indicate. The average vacation in the United States is now only a long weekend, which just isn't long enough.

Cali Williams Yost, author of the 2005 book Work+Life: Finding the Fit That's Right for You and a coach on work/life balance, asserts that it is not just taking vacation that is important, but how we operate while on it that makes the big difference. She advises corporate clients on how to "avoid having technology become the Grinch that Stole Your Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa)" by setting personal goals around technology usage: "We all need to be much more conscious when we go on vacation."

But it's not all about self control; it's also about government control. Why does the government need to get involved? Because in this cutthroat economic environment, vacation -- like parental leave -- goes the way of the wimp. Even if workers are employed by companies that guarantee vacation time, many of them are afraid to take advantage because they might be seen as slackers. A culture of self-sacrifice has cropped up in so many careers, leaving those who take their full two weeks looking uncommitted and ineffective.

In truth, they are probably better employees for taking the time off. Three-week vacations have proven to be a boost to productivity and profits at enlightened American firms where the culture truly supports the practice. Especially in the knowledge economy, clear thinking and a fresh perspective are critical to best practice. How can anyone expect to get the newest ideas and most innovative approaches from workers who only get the occasional weekend getaway, cell phones still permanently attached to their ears?

Some companies are already reporting hard-and-fast evidence of the phenomenon, according to Robinson. Jancoa, a Cincinnati-based cleaning services company, extended its vacation benefits for its 468 employees to three weeks at a total cost of seven cents. Productivity and morale increased so much that the company was able to eliminate overtime and cut its retention and recruiting costs. The H Group, a management firm founded in 1990 and based in Salem, Oregon, has seen profits double since owner Ron Kelemen pushed his three-week vacation program.

The movement rallying around this issue hopes to get vacation law into the 2008 presidential conversation as well. They are framing it not only as a quality of life issue, but as an indispensable ingredient of global competition. The fastest growing economy in the world, China, offers three weeks off, which they call "Golden Weeks."

Robinson quips, "President Bush knows the value of vacation time. He enjoys his trips to his ranch. He ought to be the first to step up and say, 'Send me this bill and I'll sign it.'"