Sure, we've got the Grossest Domestic Product on the planet. But American society is no longer healthy for children and other living things. Consider that in 1980, people in only ten other countries lived longer than we do. Now, people in 45 other countries live longer. Consider that if you lived in Europe you'd be only a little more than half as likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like heart disease, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes after the age of 50.
And why is that? For sure, a big reason is time. Europeans work about 300 hours less on average each year than Americans do. Consequently, they have a lot more free time to exercise, eat slowly and healthily, sleep longer and socialize with friends and family. Each of these does wonders for their health. Certainly, that explains a big part of the fact that they only pay a little over half as much as we do for health care.
At a minimum, every European worker is guaranteed four weeks paid vacation by law; most get six or more. By contrast, a new poll of 1,000 representative Americans, conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation found that 28% of American workers took no paid vacation time last year and another 24% took a week off or less.
This is not about slacking or being lazy. Meaningful labor is an essential element in the pursuit of happiness. But so is free time to enjoy the fruits of that labor. It's about balance really, and in our zeal to out-produce and out-consume everyone else, America has gotten out of balance.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more middle-class Americans (68%) responded that "having free time" was a high priority for themselves and their families than any other goal. By contrast, only 12% said "becoming wealthy" was highly important to them.
If we really want more time, here's a simple place for the new Obama administration to start: let's guarantee three weeks of paid vacation to all American workers (pro-rated for part-timers), a proposal of the non-profit organization, Take Back Your Time (see www.right2vacation.org). 137 countries in the world have paid vacation laws; the US is the only industrial country that doesn't. If we can't make it happen next year at the national level, the issue is a perfect one for statewide initiative campaigns.
The new Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 69% of Americans would support a law guaranteeing paid vacation time to all workers, with a plurality favoring a time period of three weeks or more.
Studies show that men who take regular vacations are 32% less likely to die of heart attacks than those who don't. The Framingham Heart Study found that women who don't take vacations are up to eight times more likely to suffer from heart disease than women who take two vacation breaks a year. We're talking big numbers here--and high costs to our health care system. Another study showed that women who don't take vacations are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression as those who do. It isn't rocket science; vacations make us healthier.
One doctor I know told me, "Patients come in and they are bouncing off the walls with stress. And I ask them when their last vacation was. Sometimes it's six years or more. So I tell them that before they consider medication or therapy they should take two weeks off. They come back and tell me how much better they feel. Happens all the time."
Vacations also make us more productive. An Air New Zealand study found that after vacations, workers got an extra hour of quality sleep and their reaction times were 30-40 percent faster.
Here's a scary statistic: the number of Americans taking family vacations has dropped by a third in the past generation. Yet experts like University of Minnesota professor of family therapy William Doherty say such vacations are a primary source of bonding, and among the family experiences most likely to be remembered by children.
Vacations matter for health, family, and productivity. Enlightened businesses recognize that. An enlightened America would protect the right of workers to a block of vacation time each year.
Did you take a vacation this year? If not, you just might end up with Irritable Growl Syndrome. Ever notice that people seem crankier these days? Been caught in traffic jams when "road rage" erupts? Been asked to work overtime one too many times? Snarled at your boss when he or she told you it was too bad you'd pre-paid for those airplane tickets but the office couldn't get along without you for a week this summer? Well, you get the idea. It's time to vaccinate America against the scourge of Irritable Growl Syndrome.
There are those who will say that with our struggling economy, we can't afford vacations. But the productivity and health numbers show that, in fact, we can't afford NOT to ensure vacation time for American workers. It's time to guarantee paid vacations for all Americans and restore balance to our harried lives.
A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.
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