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Added: 21 March 2000

On Vacation Time

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion--Cyril Northcote Parkinson

A Frenchman does an honest year's work in 46 weeks, 45 if you count Bastille Day, Lundi de Pentecote, and other national holidays. The Australians and Brazilians are up to the same game, enjoying six weeks of government-mandated vacation after one year of employment. The Germans generally negotiate seven or eight weeks off with full pay, exceeding their 25 day legal minimum. Even the assiduous British, who race gleefully to work in order to escape their dreary little houses, have recently adopted European legislation guaranteeing all workers four weeks of paid vacation by the year 2000.

All these perfectly ordinary countries are having a picnic without running their economies into the ground, yet United States workers subsist on 10 paltry days of paid vacation a year. A US worker who manages to stay with the same company for 15 years might clamber his way up to four weeks off, but such tenacity is rarely possible in today's workplace. Madonna yearns for just one day out of life for her Holiday; in the most advanced country in the northern hemisphere, she really should be demanding at least four weeks.

Almost everywhere long working hours are recognized as a health and safety issue. In Japan sudden death from overwork is so common that there is a term for it: karoshi, a fatal combination of apoplexy, high blood pressure, and stress. The consensus in the rest of the world seems to be that a worker needs at least four weeks off to stop his head from exploding. In the US, as in Japan, these health and safety considerations have clearly been subjugated by the ideal of work. In the negotiation of coffee breaks, safety shoes, and pension plans, did US workers somehow forget to negotiate annual leave?

Hauling out the old Puritan work ethic is irresistible. Americans are bred to feel guilty when they are not tilling the fields or praying. Rest and activities that are not tangibly productive are associated with sloth and indolence, and attended by an appropriately dirty sensation. This work ethic is possibly a useful concept for people who have their shoulders to the grindstone in founding a nation and creating all the new vowel sounds that go along with it. It is much less relevant to an established society where time for reflection, development of the intellect, and investment in the family are not only the fruits of living in such a society but also part of its replenishment.

Even if the shadowy fear of going to hell is only a vague echo in the American consciousness, the fear of failing in the ruthless free market maintains a strong grip. Hard work has a heady significance in the US as the only thing lying between the gutter and an uptown apartment. That each man starts out on the same square and uses his wits, sweat, and ingenuity to acquire wealth defines American egalitarianism; there are winners and losers, but the race is fair. As a result, responsibility for failure to succeed falls heavily on the shoulders of the individual, regardless of adverse social or economic conditions.

Can this relationship with work possibly be healthy? Just as we'd think things through if the Americans ate only two square meals a day to the German four, the possible conclusions are straightforward: Either one side is getting fat and lazy or the other is being cruelly over-stretched.

Studies in Europe point to the latter conclusion. There are the health and safety aspects of working long hours, in which sufficient annual leave plays an important role as an opportunity for mental and physical regeneration. The stress-related illnesses suffered by Danish bus drivers show a remarkable correlation with long working hours, and no correlation at all with eating sticky pastries. The Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez disasters were caused through negligence of workers who had been working long uninterrupted shifts. In the United States, the phenomenon of mailmen "going postal" and killing their fellow workers may have more than a little to do with inability break out of the vacuum of work.

Beyond the basic sanity-restoring implications is the wider consideration of how we spend our time. Here, America is not alone: people in all modern nations are trying to juggle multiple lives; one of the perverse effects of the new choices offered by technological advancement and ideological liberation is that life, instead of seeming richer and fuller, seems to be whirling by.

Theodore Zeldin, reminding us that our current work arrangements date back only to the late nineteenth century when industrialists erected public clocks and instituted the weekend to bring workers into step, suggests that we may be ready for a new approach to work:

"Now that the expectation of life has doubled, life cannot be viewed as offering just one chance, in one profession. Experience of more than one discipline has become the key to success. Since knowledge has to be constantly renewed, and since individuals are increasingly unhappy about wasting talents they cannot use in their jobs, the sabbatical year may have a future, offering an opportunity to change direction, or simply do what busy people do not have the time to do, namely think, or take a long promenade."

Zeldin laments that although the sabbatical year has been legal in France since 1971, for developing skills or spending time with family, few people have taken advantage of it. Yet there is nothing inherent in the social security system that precludes taking time off during one's most vital years rather than saving it all up for the end. It seems the French, like the rest of us, need to get used to the idea of broken routines and resum├ęs.

Another alternative is to follow one's own path through work itself. Much has been written about reinventing work and people are beginning to break out of traditional structures to redefine when, where, and how they work. The End of Work has been pronounced, based on the idea that our labors will become seamlessly integrated into our lives, driven organically by our strengths and passions. However, unless the implicit value of taking time off is formalized we are likely to remain locked into the same endless grind, perhaps even more so now that work is capable of following people home, seeping onto the dinner table, and even going on holiday. Removing the boundaries that have held work in check is like giving permanent daylight to the Puritans.

While we may have to wait for our long promenade, there are signs that companies are starting to recognize the need for workers to have a life, albeit for economic reasons. Some companies are discouraging employees from checking their email and voice messages over the weekend and unions are starting to make a noise about mandatory overtime, which prevents workers from spending time with their families. A recent New York Times article celebrated Hewlett Packard's initiative to address the burnout issue by setting annual goals not only for productivity but also for leisure:

"When a staff member achieves a milestone, such as leaving at 2 p.m. to take a daughter ice-skating, co-workers are encouraged to applaud with the same gusto as they would for someone landing an order for laser printers."

Flexible work habits can be truly liberating, but unless they are accompanied by a sense of holiday entitlement Americans will continue to deny themselves time for a little parading. Concerns that reputation and productivity might decline can be easily dispelled by a glance at the diligent Germans, each of whom has enough vacation time for three US workers. The challenge is to work smarter not harder, and to give those promenades the importance they deserve.

I have taken to arriving at the office one hour later than I am expected. Therefore I am far more rested and refreshed when I do arrive, and I avoid that bleak first hour of the day during which my still sluggish senses and body make every chore a penance. I find that in arriving later, the work which I do perform is of a much higher quality.

Ignatius J. Reilly
Diary of a Working Boy
From A Confederacy of Dunces by
John Kennedy Toole