- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

Leisure guilt. We repeat: leisure (short pause) guilt. Along with chafing over trans fats, expensive handbags and high-tech toys, Americans feel guilty about taking vacations, this according to the psychology department at Argosy University, ironically located in scenic Honolulu.

Surely this signals the end of civilization.

“It may be the result of fear and anxiety about job security,” explains Raymond Folen, the therapist who discovered this new syndrome. Those setting out on vacation with a new bottle of Coppertone and a snappy pair of Bermuda shorts actually are dithering in dread, convinced something hideous will happen during that two weeks of R&R.;

Yes, of course. Layoffs, mischief, pilfering, mayhem. Whatshisname over in receiving will be up to no good; middle management and all the bean counters are slavering to eliminate anything and everything from next year’s budget. And the boss. And that volcano goddess over in human resources … oh, the humanity.

And on D-Day, as that very first highway tollbooth looms — proof that the dreaded holiday has at last begun — the hapless vacationer is tortured with leisure guilt and possibly leisure panic. There may be a commotion should the family automobile hurtle toward an uncertain destiny in the EZ Pass rather than the Cash Only lane. The dog will have wakened, brows knit. A little voice from the back seat asks, “Are we there yet?”

And now, moving forward like scenes in a disaster movie, the events unfold.

A dollar bill is readied for the semicoherent attendant behind clouded glass. In a haze, the vacationer dangles the money in midair even as the dog attempts an escape through the passenger window and a full 20-ounce bottle of Cherry Coca-Cola is overturned by unknown forces, perhaps from a parallel universe.

Oh no. This is it. The money is surrendered, and the green thank-you light has been illuminated, signaling the vacation is indeed under way, ending life as we know it.

No. It’s happening: Whatshisname is already transferring funds from the department, and the bean counters are rioting; the boss is brandishing a layoff list; and the volcano goddess has erupted.

There may be a small “Honey, it’ll be all right” speech from a nearby loved one. There could be a momentary flash of reason: Hey, wait a minute. This is a vacation. There will be boats to ride in, and swimming and cocktails. We’re going to get some of that special cheese at the old country store and go for two-for-one lobster night at the swank restaurant.

But no, leisure guilt and full-blown leisure hysteria take over again, with visions of the boss and the bean counters and the volcano goddess in full cry among the cubicles.

“Concerns may be fueled by worries about an overly aspiring, competitive co-worker, a subordinate that is coveting one’s job, or a critical boss,” says psychologist Folen. He has more bad news, too: Our leisure guilt may be caused by childhood trauma.

What? Did our parents once leave us alone with Great Aunt Madge and a black-and-white television at a seaside motor court? Were we deeply intimidated by the screaming of a thousand automatic hand dryers at the Walt Whitman rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike?

No, Mr. Folen says. Some people hate their vacations “because taking time off makes them feel bad or worthless.”

Oh. So that’s it.

“Often these individuals were raised by parents who instilled in them that a good child is a productive child,” he observes.

No, no. Say it isn’t so, doc.

Mr. Folen advises that we all conspire with a trusted co-worker who will “watch our back” while we’re gone, then write out lists identifying the pros and cons of taking a vacation.

“Overworked and overstressed workers may end up taking vacations regardless, either now at a beach resort or later in the hospital recuperating from a stress-related condition,” Mr. Folen admonishes.

Well, all right then. Dr. Leisure Guilt himself has given us permission to go on holiday without reproach, to dally — and maybe even dillydally — by the sea, among the pines or in a restaurant that puts paper parasols in its tropical libations.

In the end, though, vacation hysteria is mostly self-inflicted. According to a new survey of 1,006 working adults by the online travel agency Orbitz, 65 percent reported that their bosses actually encouraged them to take vacation time. Also, despite all the whining, sniveling and avoidance behavior in tollbooths, 60 percent also said they take at least two weeks of annual leave and another 60 percent said they do not check in with work while on holiday.

“You’ve worked hard and earned your time off,” advises Rosemary Haefner of Career Builder, a workplace consulting group. “Preparation is the key to banishing guilt. Improve your planning and scheduling — the more you prepare, the less you’ll worry about the work you’re leaving behind.”

So go ahead. Get the stack of dollar bills ready for the tollbooth, and have one of those banana-coconut-mango things in honor of all of us slugs still here at the office.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and volcano goddesses for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at 202/636-3085 or jharper@washington times.com.

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