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Vacation Blues

Why more time to relax away from work is needed to keep America competitive


  • Caleb Walsh illustration

We are in the midst of that dreary time of year when the wet, cold darkness seems omnipresent even as we've begun to inch towards the light. Many seize the season and use vacation time as a winter-blues survival strategy. With accelerating demands on our time, however, people can feel like they need a vacation just to plan a vacation, or fully recover from their adventures when they return from one. This assumes you are lucky enough to earn any vacation at all.


As the Center for Economic Policy and Research points out, the United States is the only developed country that doesn't guarantee its workers either paid vacation or holidays. With the least vacation time offered in the industrialized world and 40 percent of Americans not using all of the meager vacation time we do earn, we need to have a conversation about our need for more time off.

Over the past few decades, trends regarding how worker productivity has increased beyond the efficiencies gained by technology have been well documented. Yet with union density decreasing, wages have largely remained flat, while buying power has actually gone down for average families. This means we are working more for less, which puts greater stress on all of us personally, professionally and socially. The 40-hour workweek was designed around a single-income household, with a full time homemaker to hold down the domestic front. Now, with both partners working, life can feel like a thankless struggle to take care of basic needs, while civic and cultural participation too often becomes an afterthought.

Fortunately, there are forces pushing back against America's senseless "more more more" mentality that valorizes self-sacrifice far past the point of productivity. The Take Back Your Time campaign "advocates for cultural change regarding greater time affluence and less time stress," offering employers research on how vacations are a smart investment, and supporting a "Time to Care" policy platform, which includes items such as one week of paid sick leave for workers, which recently became law here in Spokane, as well as making Election Day a national holiday.

The Energy Project promotes a paradigm shift that would focus on managing our energy, instead of our time, to maintain peak performance in demanding work environments. Telling ourselves to "tough it out" and "suck it up" around the clock actually has negative consequences for both our job satisfaction and our health. The field of psychoneuroimmunology studies how stress and adrenal dysfunction can alter our immune systems and make us more susceptible to illness. Despite spending more per capita on medical care than any other country, the U.S. is at the bottom among rich countries for life expectancy. As our workforce continues to age, these are increasing costs that employers can ill afford.

Vacations are those rare moments in life when we get outside the daily grind and can live the human experience to its fullest. Let's break out of our global reputation as the "no vacation nation" and invest in our full vitality. We workaholics deserve it. ♦

Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She currently serves as a public health advocate.

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