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Taking Time Off Can Improve Health and Productivity

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Americans are overworked, stressed out, anxiety-ridden. Our fast-paced lifestyles are wearing us out. Persistent uncertainty about the economy is paralyzing us. Fear is a common response. Prescriptions for medications against anxiety and depression outrank for the first time all others, including drugs to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, according to the latest reports on spending for health care in the U.S.

In 1980, between 2 and 4 percent of Americans suffered from anxiety disorder, according to surveys conducted by the American Psychiatric Association on mental disorders. By 2009, follow-up studies showed a dramatic rise to 49.5 percent. That means 117 million U.S. citizens have been affected by disabling anxiety at least once in their lives.

What is happening? Why are we becoming suddenly a nation of nervous wrecks? Our lifestyle has certainly something to do with it. We don't value free time and leisure as much as other cultures do. Two-hour lunches, midday siestas, weeks of paid vacations may be cherished customs elsewhere, but not here. We work longer hours with fewer breaks than almost any other developed nation. Even industrial powerhouses like Germany and France have 35-hour workweeks, but their productivity levels are among the highest in the world. On average, people there may have lower income rates, but their standard of living and quality of life are in many ways above the U.S.

Considering the price we pay in terms of our health and well-being, it may be time to question whether our traditional work ethic -- which is essentially chasing the dime, no matter what -- is still a worthy or even sustainable concept. In a recently published book, titled How Much Is Enough, (Other Press, 2012), the authors, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, a father-son team, argue that people who work too hard miss out on the "good life," although that is supposedly the ultimate goal of their intense efforts, ideally becoming rich enough to enjoy a happy, carefree existence.

Skidelsky senior, a historian, and Skidelsky junior, a philosopher, cite the idea of the economist John Maynard Keynes that increasing per capita productivity through technological progress and other factors would eventually lead to a sharp decline in work hours, a theory that has clearly not been verified yet.

Yes, we have reduced our official workweek to 40 hours, but that is just the time we are required to spend in the office cubicle or at the assembly line. Long commutes, chores around the house, extracurricular activities for the kids, etc. cut deep into what's left of the day. Doing nothing once in a while, lying in a hammock, listening to music, reading a book, painting a picture, playing an instrument, going on a trip -- all that, it seems, has become an impossible dream. It doesn't have to be this way.

Fortunately, the ability to change our way of life is not just stuff made up by academics. Forward-thinking companies like Google are well known for their efforts to enhance creativity by giving employees time off to pursue ideas of their own, regardless the outcome. Some of their most successful innovations have come out of that policy.

Much smaller enterprises are beginning to understand the advantages of allowing their people more space to play and explore as well. Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of 37signals, a software company, found that giving employees an entire month off to work on whatever they wanted was not only a great morale-booster but also resulted in an unprecedented burst of creativity, very much to the benefit of his business (see this article in the New York Times, Aug. 19, 2012).

The all-American creed that hard work will make us successful may still linger for a long time to come. But eventually, we will have to accept our limits. Work alone does not guarantee success, as taking time off and pacing ourselves are not equivalent to laziness. There must be time for both to make the whole person.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in "In Praise of Play."

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