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Vacation doesn’t work

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2008

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 Expedia.com. 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 Expedia.com 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."