Working Our Pain Away: Americans’ Endless Desire for Relief that Never Comes
I was talking the other day with someone – make that four someones, on separate occasions, one from Portugal – about the tragedy that is the typical American working mentality. And we weren’t even talking about corporate America, but the average, everyday Joe or Jane who spends long hours working toward that moment of relief that never seems to come, with little to no vacation time to breathe, relax, and live. The instinct is to blame someone or something else - society, your boss, your job - but, the truth is, it's our fault. The truth is: we don't even use what we're given.
I’ve had many of these kinds of conversations over the years. When I began working in an HR office in 2011, I started seeing employees who were stressed, overworked, and demotivated. Even in this company that had a comparatively excellent vacation policy, nobody seemed to be taking time off. I would look at employees' records and see weeks worth of vacation hours, just sitting there, unused, yet they would complain about being tired, worn out, and on the verge of mental breakdowns. What was going on?
Mandatory Vacation: A Comparison
According to a 2014 story by CBSNews.com,
“The average American worker is entitled to 16 days of paid leave. But the length of the average vacation lasts just over four days! Only 25 percent of workers say they take all the time off that's due them... In fact, 15 percent of Americans report taking NO time off.”
Sixteen days. That’s two solid weeks. Sounds like a nice chunk, right? Well, remember that “entitled to” is not the same as “takes”. Anyone who has been working in America for long understands there’s a general air of criticism when you request to take the time off that you’ve supposedly earned and deserve. When you put in the request, your manager groans because they have to schedule for an employee to be gone; your co-workers complain because your time off usually means they have a bigger workload; if you are the manager, you still get criticized, if only passive-aggressively, about how you’re taking time off when everyone else can’t (or won’t).
No matter who you are - blue or white collar - there’s a general fear that taking time away from work will be viewed by your superiors as “slacking” and by doing so you risk losing your job to someone who will work more hours than you and won’t cash in that pesky vacation time.
The bottom line: The time off is often there, but nobody wants to take it.
Now, compare Americans' average 16 vacation days with how many vacation days other countries mentioned in the same article have required for workers:
France: 31 days Japan: 10 days Italy: 31 days Canada: 19 days
And from other sources I found these numbers:
England: 20 days France: 30 days Germany: 22 days Italy: 22 or 23 days
These numbers aren’t just about available days of vacation, but mandated time off. That’s right: other developed countries’ governments actually REQUIRE workers to take vacations. Why is that? Probably because they realize a happy employee produces better work, sticks around longer, and produces a happier more fulfilled society of citizens.
And probably because they long ago realized that if it isn't mandatory, nobody would go on vacation because of "workplace competition". (E-hem. America.) But, hey, I’m a fan of graphics, so here’s a chart featuring countries and the number of days of vacation their governments require workers to take.
That’s right: America — “the greatest country in the world,” or so we say -- sits at a very depressing ZERO. Give or take some data considering the date the graph was made and now, but you get the gist: Americans are drastically under-vacationed.
The Bigger Reason We Can’t Relax
It’s easy enough to blame the System and point the finger at “The Man” for not giving us vacation days to use, but that’s not the full story. The bigger, deeper issue isn’t what we’re given. It’s our mentality. It’s really not them. It’s us.
In an article written by Ron Thomas, an American working and living in Saudi Arabia, where the minimum mandated vacation time is 21 days (plus a bunch of other days off for things like marriage and paternity leave), he makes note of the clear difference in thinking between the Americans and, well, everyone else, when it comes to taking time off.
“When the workday ends, everybody leaves on time with the exception of us (the Americans). We tend to be the last to leave. When I arrive at my desk at 7 am (start time is 8:30), again, our cars are the only ones in the parking lot. My team members (about 20 people) basically come in very close to 8:30, and they leave on time (for the most part) at the end of the day.”
The kicker? Thomas notes that “there is no discernible difference in productivity” between the Americans who overworked and the Saudis who took lunches, went home on time, and didn’t check their emails off the clock.
So, sure, blame The Man, but it’s really our personal philosophies revolving around “work” vs “rest” that has Americans completely screwed up (and that’s coming from a therapist).
We think of vacation as something to earn instead of a God-given right, whereas “Europeans [and many other developed nations] treat vacation as a duty rather than a perk.”
Sadly, we think it hurts us to be happy.
Bertrand Russell, in 1932, wrote “In Praise of Idleness,” a letter discussing why
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone.”
(I love that letter. I even printed it out so I can refer to it and read it every once in a while. I suggest you do the same.)
It's pretty obvious that our technology and techniques for getting work done have improved even more since Russell's time. So what gives? Why do we work more now than we did even in the 70s, when “U.S. leave policies were roughly on a par with comparably rich European countries”? We have robots on production lines; the Internet; mass communication; faster shipping; you name it, we can do it faster and better today than ever before. Hasn’t productivity improved enough that we can work less than the 40 hour work week that Henry Ford started because “his internal research showed 40 hours was as far as you could push manual laborers in a week before they got stupid and began making costly mistakes”? Apparently not. Why?
My thought: because our “corporate culture…equate[s] taking time off with slacking, [and] many employees feel they are effectively penalized for going on vacation, as promotions and other rewards go to people more able and willing to work around the clock.”
Pokémon Go: Just the newest distraction
(For anyone unfamiliar or completely baffled by this whole Pokémon Go phenomenon, Rolling Stone offers this crash course in understanding the game.)
What spurred me to write this article instead of doing other work on my agenda is because I was at a coffee shop listening to three young, 20-something guys casually discussing their latest adventures with Pokémon Go. One said, “I caught enough monsters last night to <blah blah blah>… and I’ve been hatching all kinds of things…” I had no idea what these guys are saying, but I understood the general lean of the conversation, and it was this: “I was working, but I was mentally checked-out of my job because I’m always working.”
These young men all had jobs. One talked about how his boss would have let him stop his route (he’s a driver of some sort) if he was in a ride-along in order to go to a PokeSpot and seek out a new monster for his collection. But, because his boss wasn’t there to give him the A-okay, he kept driving and passed up his chance at a new capture. I admired that: He was a dedicated employee who understood that he was on the clock and didn’t go off dilly-dallying to play a game. Good for him. But, still, the fact that he wanted to be doing something else was cause for at least mild concern. The fact that he knew his boss would want to be doing something else was also a red flag.
Despite my mild criticism, I understood the guy's desire for distraction: When we overwork we check out, at work AND at home. Our brains are so desperate for time off that we can't help but be distracted. From everything.
Are we a nation of workaholics?
Chronic over-workers (aka workaholics*) find it difficult to impossible to be present at home even when they’re at home because they’re (1) still thinking about work or (2) too exhausted from work to give proper attention to anything else, like their hobbies, families, or social lives. At work, they can't focus because they're too tired and their minds are literally drained. Productivity is down, which makes them only want to try harder, put in more hours, take fewer breaks...
Surely you see the trouble.
So working long hours doesn’t just affect the individual while they're in the office. Now we’re talking about long-lasting effects outside of work. We’re talking about an overall breakdown of priorities, families, communities; of health and society altogether. It may sound dramatic, but it's true. Working too much in conjunction with a lack of leisure time has been proven, time and time again, to make people sicker, dumber, angrier, less productive, disengaged (from everything). Maybe that’s really why our kids are disconnected and can’t socialize: because we’re never there, even when we are. Maybe that's one reason why we spend more on health care than most other rich nations. Maybe that’s why our sense of community is disappearing: because we don’t have the energy for it. Maybe that’s why we don’t even know who our neighbors are.
These are all maybes and speculations on my part, but the truth remains: We work too damn much.
But, hey... 'Merca!
But, we’re Americans. We have goals, dammit! We don’t have time to dally in leisure activities and vacation. We don't have time for FUN! Working hard is the backbone of our society, built into the roots of our country! Hard work is how we’ve become “the greatest nation in the world,” after all!
So, instead of all this sissy vacation talk, let’s strive to be like the hardworking Japanese and South Koreans who have actually come up with words (Karōshi and gwarosa, respectively) that literally mean “death by overwork”. That sounds noble, doesn’t it? Dying at your desk?
So don’t worry: If you decide you don't want to change your attitude about leisure time, you’ll be just another busy American barreling toward self-destruction. And we’re already well on our way - hooray us! - because while the “Japanese have a term for 'working until death'... American workers average 137 MORE hours per year than their Japanese counterparts.”
Go, America, go.
P.S. Here’s another fun info-graphic, just for kicks. It's a bit long, but it's fun. You’re welcome.
 Thomas, Ron. “See You in a Month: Why Americans Need to Get Serious About Vacations,” 2013Aug12. Web: http://www.eremedia.com/tlnt/see-you-in-a-month-why-americans-need-to-get-serious-about-vacations/
 Sherter, Alain. “When it comes to vacations, the U.S. stinks,” 2013May24. Web: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/when-it-comes-to-vacations-the-us-stinks/.
 Gaille, Brandon. “21 Significant Workaholic Statistics,” 2014Nov20. Web: http://brandongaille.com/21-significant-workaholic-statistics/.
This article originally published July 22, 2016.