08/06/2014 03:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Working Hard -- And No Need for Vacation? Here's Why


Do you work increasingly long hours, and even pride yourself on taking little, if any, vacation time? If so, you're in pretty good company. Some recent surveys confirm - again -- that U.S. workers tend to take relatively little vacation time, and they work increasingly longer hours. With more heightened awareness of the damaging effects of work-life "imbalance," physically and emotionally, one wonders, what maintains this unhealthy way of life for so many?

It's easy to cite the fact that U.S. companies provide very little paid vacation time as a matter of policy compared with other industrialized nations. We're the only advanced economy in the world that doesn't guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays, says John Schmitt, co-author of a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that, even after 10 years of employment, about 65 percent of workers have less than 2.5 weeks of paid vacation.

But the lack of vacation time provided by employers is both a cause and effect: It reflects something about our social values to begin with. For example, how we define success and personal worth can include taking little time away from work. And that, in turn, is reinforced by company policies. But beneath the surface, psychologically, is often a sense of being trapped in a way of life that one can't break free from. Or, as one person told me, "I don't like who I've become."

According to one survey, the median vacation time is 12 days. And 40 percent take a week or less. Yet, the impact of overwork is well-known: Higher levels of stress, which can create both physical illness and emotional conflicts. It fuels marital and family conflicts. In fact, a Gallup survey found that nearly 70 percent who take no vacations at all report that they struggle to balance work and life. And, while another survey found that about 50 percent claim to be satisfied with their work-life balance, 81 percent also said that work-life balance would be a critical factor in deciding whether to accept a new position.

Ironically, overwork and little time off leads to less productivity and less effective decision-making, as well as diminished focus and clarity. That's become worse in today's world, as recent research shows the cost of being online and available 24/7, thanks to digital technology.

As the saying goes, no one on their deathbed says they wished they had spent more time at the office. So, what propels people to diminish time away from work -- even short breaks to recharge and reboot their energy and life balance?

We need to look at some of the social and psychological motives that give rise to this paradoxical picture. Here are some that are worth noting:

The Passionate Worker

For some people, the above picture is misleading. That is, some are highly energized and passionate about what they do. They're very engaged, both generally and in periodic bursts of activity. Their creative and mental energies are pulled by something larger than just personal, ego rewards. They're drawn by a larger sense of service to a mission, product or goal, which enlists their creative, emotional and intellectual powers.

From the outside, they may look like they work nonstop, with little time off. But that's not accurate from a longer-range view. They tend to pull back and recharge, periodically, taking time away, or longer breaks, when they may engaging in other activity or experiences different from than their work.

However, it's important to distinguish between this kind of passionate engagement from that which may look similar on the surface, but reflects obsessive, narcissistic, dominating attitudes; i.e. internal, unconscious issues. A recent study by BI Norwegian Business School described the latter as "obsessive passion," fueled by needs for social status and self-esteem. Not surprisingly, that's linked with burnout, work/family-life conflicts and work stress.

The Classic Workaholic

This person often reflects those emotional drivers, without the passionate engagement. This person often feels trapped within long working hours, with little or no time off. And even while nominally "on vacation," may be on the phone or the computer most of the time. The classic workaholic is unable to really take time away from work. He or she may be unconsciously seeking to please a demanding parent figure, who's represented by the boss, the career, or the company in general. Or, the workaholic may turn to immersion in work as a "solution" -- though an unhealthy one, often unconscious -- to having to spend more time with and relate to his or her spouse and children. There, the thought of a vacation, away from work, is especially frightening: It threatens to expose the relationship issue that the workaholism otherwise masks.

The Conventional Success

Possibly the largest source of the inability to let go of work, and not embracing time off for renewal and rebalance, is our socially conditioned view and definition of success and traditional "manhood." Here, the person tends to equate self-worth, personal value, status, and material success with putting in long hours, without a break. For example, Bill, who said to me with a self-satisfied smile, "Haven't had a vacation in years - that's not for me." These are people who, as a recent survey found, say they have no problem at all having an important, demanding job and dealing with "balance." They believe they don't sacrifice anything, while working an average of about 60 hours a week, or more.

Many of these no-time-for-vacation people have embraced a part of our traditional cultural definition of success, long associated with "manhood," which is now crumbling as our society evolves and diversifies. Many may experience a loss of mooring about their identity, purpose and place in the world. That can feel threatening to them. Those men, in particular, who hold or cling to traditional positions of power in society and who define their self-worth that way may feel terrified about losing what they've always assumed a stable, successful life consists of. It may feel inconceivable to them that society would be anything other than supportive of who they are and their secure place in the world; and that they would be the perpetual beneficiaries of that stability.

The conventionally successful person is the more pervasive source of avoiding time away from work, and "need" to be working long hours, despite the multiple costs. But as women and minorities rise in business and organizations, the increasing upheaval may shift the dynamic that's been perpetuating the unhealthy attitudes, behavior and way of life of both the workaholic and traditionally successful male.

Hopefully, we may see of healthier workers emerge, who manage normal, everyday stress with healthy attitudes; who know the benefit to oneself and society of a more diverse, integrated life. And, we may see more of the passionate worker, who can engage intensively with interesting challenges, and then disconnect, to immerse and enjoy other kinds of pleasures and life experiences.


Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.