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No Vacation Nation

It’s Labor Day weekend, and another summer vacation season has come to an end. For the 71 percent of working Americans who actually get a paid vacation, that is. If this year was like last year or the one before that, half of all Americans will have taken only a week—or less—off work this summer. Compare that to an average of five weeks in Europe and you get an idea why some people call the United States “No Vacation Nation.”

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller lamented that we “suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation,” but even those two weeks aren’t a legal right, and millions of working Americans don’t get them.

Nearly all other countries in the world have something we don’t: a national law mandating that workers receive some amount of paid vacation each year. Only the Guyanas, Nepal, and that paragon of human rights, Myanmar (Burma) join the US in having no vacation law.

What’s with the difference? And does it really matter if people have vacation time or not? Some 50 experts from the fields of medicine, psychology, business, labor, recreation, environmental sciences, and family studies joined a group of activists at Seattle University to try to answer those questions.

Their answers were resoundingly clear: vacations are not an idle luxury. They’re a crucial ingredient in creating a healthy, civically engaged, and environmentally responsible society.

Vacations matter, especially for health. Sarah Speck, a cardiologist at Seattle’s Swedish hospital, scared everyone at the conference with a graphic look at the impact of stress, and especially workplace stress, on heart health, concluding that such stress is “the new tobacco,” and that vacations are an important way to reduce stress and burnout. Dr. Arnold Pallay, a family physician from New Jersey, confirmed Dr. Speck’s findings, saying that many of the health problems his patients suffer from stem from lack of vacation time. “Take two weeks and call me in the morning,” he tells them.

Representative Alan Grayson of Orlando, Florida introduced the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, the first effort to pass a vacation law in the United States since 1936. “When people tell me they oppose such a law, I ask them if they get vacations,” Grayson told participants, “and every single one of them has said, ‘Yes.’ They want vacations for themselves but not for others.”


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Grayson’s proposed law (HR 2564) is extremely modest—one to two weeks of paid time off for workers in companies with more than 50 employees—but it’s a start, a down payment toward a time when we recognize the greater cost we pay for not providing vacation time. Even now, that cost to our already overburdened health system is substantial—men who don’t take regular vacations are 32 percent more likely to have heart attacks than those who do; for women, the figure is 50 percent. And they are two to three times as likely to suffer from depression.

With the fight over health care reform heating up, it’s useful to consider that in Europe, where long vacations and shorter working weeks are common, people live longer and healthier lives than in the U.S. while spending only half as much on health care. We need to insure everyone in the United States, but that alone won’t improve our health. Working less, and instead spending more time exercising, eating well, connecting with friends and family, sleeping, and relieving the stress caused by our long working hours, will.

Indeed, according to Dr. Stephen Bezruchka of the University of Washington School of Public Health, even the involuntary drop in working hours caused by the recent recession has had a positive impact on Americans’ health, as people are exercising more, eating better and eating out less (since they can’t afford as many restaurant meals), sleeping more, spending more time with friends and family, driving less, and breathing less pollution. We don’t want to lose these health improvements when our economy rebounds.

Vacations also offer considerable benefits for productivity and creativity in the workplace, explained Joe Robinson, a business consultant. Several experts from both the U.S. and Canada pointed out the value of vacations for family bonding.

Moreover, working less is essential to a sustainable environment. We Americans consume more than the planet will bear. It’s time to begin trading gains in productivity for time instead of for stuff. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that simply by cutting our work time to European levels, we could reduce our energy use and carbon footprint by 25-30 percent. It would also make us happier—Forbes magazine reported that the four happiest nations on earth—Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden—are all characterized by the comparatively short working hours and attentiveness to work-life balance.

Each year, October 24th marks Take Back Your Time Day, an event started by the Take Back Your Time organization. This year, October 24th is also the date of scheduled “350” actions against global warming. In support, Take Back Your Time Day’s theme this year is “Chill Out.” The idea is that slowing down and working less can chill us out—and chill a warming planet as well.

It’s time to take the issue of time seriously. Our lives and our planet depend on it.

John de Graaf

John de Graaf

John de Graaf, Outreach Director of The Happiness Initiative, has produced more than fifteen national PBS documentary specials and is the co-author of "Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us—And How to Fight Back" (2014). He has taught at Evergreen State College and serves on the board of Earth Island Institute. His new initiative is the Make America Beautiful Again campaign.  He can be reached through his website:

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