As summer beckons, millions of Americans will hit the road on their annual vacations. But for how long? A week? Two? Is this long enough to decompress from 50 weeks of 24/7 activity? Compared with our European counterparts, Americans' annual vacations are meager indeed.
In Germany, even the lowest-rung factory worker gets 30 days' paid vacation on average (or 24 days by law.) In France the norm is five to six weeks. Australians get 30 days paid vacation by law and take 25 days on average. Yet these countries maintain high rates of productivity. Could it be that their employees work more effectively and are less stressed due to a saner balance between work and personal life?
We Americans are among the hardest-working people in the industrialized world, but dealing with work and home takes a toll on our physical and mental health. We juggle long work weeks with commuting and civic activities. Families rarely sit down to dinner together. Children are overscheduled. It often takes two incomes to pay the mortgage on a house and achieve ever higher material standards of living. We seem condemned to a relentless treadmill.
Why are we so work-obsessed? One hundred years ago, sociologist Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" defined work as the driving engine of capitalism, but stated it could also be an iron cage trapping us in all-consuming labor. Weber theorized that the Puritans distrusted leisure and saw work as a means to glorify God and keep human beings out of trouble. Today, money rather than divine inspiration motivates us, but our Puritan heritage remains a strong influence.
Under current federal law, Americans actually have no right to vacations. While it is true that most employers have some sort of vacation policy, at least for salaried - as opposed to hourly - workers, annual vacations average a week or two for most of us with little negotiation permitted as to when we may take them. Downsizing, weakened unions, and outsourcing have reduced vacation time from what was given in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nor is there a paid-leave structure of any kind in the US as there is in the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Japan. The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides up to 12 weeks' leave in any 12-month period, but it is unpaid leave meant to be used for medical emergencies.
All work and no play is counterproductive. We humans need downtime to recharge our batteries, define our priorities, and just relax. There is nothing wrong with doing nothing. In his book "Work To Live," Joe Robinson makes a powerful case for less work and more play, rather than living exclusively for work. He argues that we need a minimum paid-leave law for the same reason that Congress passed tough new accounting and executive compensation laws in 2002 in the wake of corporate scandals - because a completely unregulated market is a potential disaster for employees.
We workaholic Americans need time off for rest and repair, to focus on family life, and to distance ourselves from work problems. As a start, we can express support for minimum annual paid leave to the chairmen of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and to his counterpart in the House of Representatives, as well as to each member of these committees.
There's more to life than noses and grindstones. It's all about balance.
• Diane Barnet is a medical-legal consultant and freelance writer.