Ahhhh, summer’s here, and with it come trips to the beach, bar-be-ques, fireworks and vacations. Been on a vacation yet this summer? How was it? Did you come back feeling rested and refreshed? Good for you. Or, did you get swept up into a modern ‘American-style’ vacation: unable to forget about work, anxiety about email pile-up, tweeting every moment as it happened, and returning home wiped out, cranky and desperate to get back to the desk and routine? Taking time to unwind is hard enough, and knowing how to unwind properly is another matter.
What has happened to our vacations? We work all year, and save up our hard earned dollars for a getaway, only to spend far more money than we intended, race around, and get annoyed with each other. For families, the trends are mega watt destinations like Disney, Great Wolf Lodges or all inclusive resorts with constant stimulation, plenty of places to burn cash, and little in unstructured relaxation or spontaneous adventure.
Many are not able to take a vacation at all this summer – can’t afford it. Sadly, these are often the times we need it the most. A vacation can be created with very little money; the commodity we are all lacking is time. Whether the job doesn’t allow it, or workers are afraid to leave; Americans take fewer vacations than most other countries, and the ones we do take are getting busier, more expensive and consumer driven. Are we the worst vacationers in the developed world?
Only 14% of Americans took two weeks of vacation last year, and the number of Americans taking family vacations has dropped by a third in the past generation. The price we pay, by not getting away to unwind, is huge on our physical health, relationships, and emotional sense of well being.
Why are we reluctant as a culture, to support taking time off? Are vacations too costly to our GNP? Turns out job stress and burnout is said to cost our country over $300 billion per year. Our European friends have managed to compete in the modern era while continuing to take their month long “holiday”- are they just slackers?
As much as we’d like to think so, the answer is, no. The level of productivity per worker is the same, or slightly higher that ours, despite the fact they work 300 fewer hours per year. Europeans spend half the amount on health care as the US. They are requiring less health care, partly because Europeans are 50% less likely to have heart disease, hypertension or diabetes before age 50 than Americans.
Rethinking the importance of time off yet? Vacations are not just luxuries, or pithy pastimes for the rich. Statistics are showing that other countries who take regular vacations are happier, and live longer than we do. In 1980, people in only 10 other countries lived longer than we do. Now, people in 41 other countries live longer. Wow. That’s a pretty compelling reason to make sure that all Americans are getting some R&R, and that we learn how to truly “get away.”
As a matter of fact, 137 other countries are ahead of us in guaranteeing at least some vacation time. We have none. Zero. No required vacation time or paid holidays. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 28 million Americans — or about a quarter of the work force — don’t get any paid vacation. We are the veritable Ebenezer Scrooge of the world for R&R. At a minimum, every European worker is guaranteed four weeks paid vacation by law; most get six or more.
Fortunately, there is a new bill, called the H.R. 2564: THE PAID VACATION ACT OF 2009, introduced by Congressman Alan Grayson, to offer one week of paid vacation time for companies with over 100 workers, increasing to two weeks after three years, for all employees working at least 25 hours per week. Grayson proposes more vacation will stimulate the economy through fewer sick days, better productivity and happier employees.
Keep in mind seven days is modest, compared to the required 20-30 days of vacation time required in Europe and Australia. Canada and Japan offer 10 days minimum to start. According to an article in Politico, “the United States is dead last among 21 industrial countries when it comes to mandatory R&R.”
John de Graaf is the national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, an organization challenging time poverty and overwork in the U.S. and Canada, and is a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and over-consumption in America. DeGraaf is fighting to make sure this bill is seen, understood, and pushed to pass to President Obama’s desk. He is hosting the first national “Vacation Matters Summit” conference on August 10-12 at Seattle University.
DeGraff states on his site, “A new poll finds that more than two-thirds of Americans support a law that would guarantee paid vacations for workers. The poll found 69% of Americans saying they would support a paid vacation law, with the largest percentage of respondents favoring a law guaranteeing three weeks vacation or more. Take Back Your Time advocates for three weeks paid vacation or more.”
Supposedly, the “idea” for advocating for paid vacation time came to Senator Grayson when we was at Disney World. He said,
“there’s a reason why Disney World is the happiest place on Earth: The people who go there are on vacation.”
He went on to admit that,
“as much as I appreciate this job and as much as I enjoy it, the best days of my life are and always have been the days I’m on vacation.”
I found this rather funny and ironic. While Disney is an amazing place, I am not sure it is the ultimate place for a relaxing vacation. I believe there are two types of vacations these days. One type is to “see-do-buy.” Enchanted by ads with pyramid water slides, entertainment and activities, these vacations clock a mile-a-minute pace, and usually run a hefty bill. They are fun for sure, but I am not convinced they provide the type of deep unwinding our bodies require to combat stress and fatigue. Our family has taken several of these vacations, and by the end, I am ready for a break!
The other type of vacation is just to “be,” with plenty of time to read, sleep, walk, and downshift. The recession is creating an interesting vacation trend this summer- a huge spike in camping trips and visits to National Parks. Cheap, full of fresh air and untold beauty, a trip like this is sure to help gain perspective on what matters, exercise the body, and offer time for more thoughtful conversations than, “Dad, can I have a few more tokens?” A national park, local hike or gazing at scenes of natural beauty, is a key component to unhook our nerves and reset the proverbial clock for any age, single, young couples, families, or retired.
I asked about the difference between consumer vs. natural vacations to Bill Doherty, the Director of the Citizen Professional Center, and Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. He said,
“Given the trend towards shorter and shorter vacations, it does seem to be the case that American families are packing in more activities into shorter time periods: fly to Disney World, run around for several days, and fly home. That’s different from the traditional long road trips and the trips to the ocean where they family holed up for a couple of weeks. The biggest benefits from family vacations come from down time and family members entertaining themselves, not from crowded entertainment schedules and consumer festivals. It’s kind of like the difference between a family dinner at home and a quick trip to McDonald’s.”
Moral of the story? If you believe vacations should be required, write to your local congressional leaders and express your support. Then, carve out a little sunshine for yourself, spread out a blanket, close your eyes and relax. Think of it as your own personal stimulus package.
Kari Henley: Kari is currently President of the Board of Directors at the Women & Family Life Center. She organizes the Association of Women Business Leaders (AWBL), and runs her own training and consulting practice. Kari is an avid writer, active in her community, and an expert in group facilitation. She has worked for the past 17 years with corporate, non-profit and public audiences. Past clients include Yale Medical School resident program, Fed Ex, Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Washington Trust Co., CT Husky program, the American Cancer Society. For more information, email: [email protected]
This article originally appeared at Huffington Post on July 12, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.