Not sharing society's surplus creates problems
Overworked America Ranks #1 Mental Health Problems
While some want the law to mandate down-time, another way is geonomics. Places that shift taxes off work (so you donít have to work as much), onto land (so speculators canít hoard sites), make opportunity plentiful and wages higher. Then, just as Alaska does with oil revenue, you could share some of the raised revenue, empowering people to take off from work and enjoy life more. A longer version of this 2008 article appeared in In These Times on Oct 22.
By Silja J.A. TalviAmerica is at the top of the list of depressed (or otherwise mentally disordered) countries, while the Gallup Daily Happiness-Stress Index finds that the only consistent upswing in mood occur when Americans get some time off on the weekends or holidays.
As John de Graaf, executive director of Take Back Your Time, puts it, Americans are "time-starved and vacation-starved."
Americans put in more hours at work than any other nation, surpassing even the workaholic Japanese. We average nine more weeks of labor per year than our working counterparts in Western Europe, who get at least 20 paid days of vacation each year. Finland tops the list of vacation-supporting industrialized nations with 30 paid vacation days per year after the first year of work, plus 14 paid national holidays.
Canada and Japan are near the bottom of that list, with a legal minimum of 10 vacation days, while the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have a mandatory minimum of vacation time. In fact, out of the world's 195 independent countries, 137 have some kind of vacation/annual leave legislation in place.
Each year, de Graaf and his colleagues celebrate Take Back Your Time Day on Oct. 24. De Graaf, maker of the popular PBS documentaries Affluenza and Escape from Affluenza, started his organization to "challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling, and time-famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment." Work-related stress can lead to sudden heart attacks, obesity, anxiety, and depression.
Some think he is over-dramatizing the situation. "I've been told by a few prominent progressive activists that, while they're personally supportive of what we're trying to accomplish, they're not willing to get involved because this is really a white, middle-class issue," he says. " 'You couldn't be more wrong,' is what I tell them."
In July, a Take Back Your Time poll revealed that more than two-thirds (69%) of Americans would support the passage of a paid vacation law. Most enthusiastic about vacation-time-legislation were people under 35 (83%); African Americans (89%); Latinos (82%); people earning low incomes (82%); women (75%, versus 63% for men); and families with children (74%). One hundred% of African-American respondents indicated that some vacation time was necessary to avoid burn out.
"When you're poor, you're socially excluded," he says. "And/or when you're working two or three jobs to make ends meet, you know how important it is to have [downtime] with your loved ones."
But that kind of downtime is harder and harder to come by. According to the poll, 52% of working Americans received less than a week of paid vacation in the past year -- more than half of those received none -- while 65% of workers received less than two paid weeks off.
Unlike the Japanese and Chinese, we haven't given death-by-overwork its own moniker (karoshi and guolaosi, respectively), much less enacted national legislation that allows surviving family members to sue over the workplace conditions that lead to such deaths (as Japan and Korea have).
In Japan, the image of a typical karoshi victim is that of a businessman who dies at his desk after too many 80-hour workweeks. But several international studies have shown that while both sexes are at high risk for "overwork" consequences, women are far more likely to suffer mental health consequences, especially when they do not take vacations. Roughly one in five women reported taking a vacation only once every six years.
Things haven't always been this bad. Workers' lives have gone from bad to better to bad all over again. The Industrial Revolution brought extreme working conditions and 14-hour days. The late 1800s saw the beginning of the battle for the eight-hour workday. Oct. 24 marks the 70th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage in the United States. The original wording also guaranteed mandatory vacation time for all workers.
It's high time to enact a national policy to ensure that we don't have to feel guilty or fearful about losing our jobs for taking time off.
"We need the right to have that time off," urges de Graaf. "Otherwise, we won't have the [energy for the] imagination we need to better ourselves and our communities."
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