Our jobs are killing us—it’s time to give every American a paid vacation

America’s workers need a break.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently introduced the Guaranteed Paid Vacation Act to Congress. If passed, it would require employers with at least 15 workers to provide 10 days of paid vacation to every employee who has worked with them for more than a year.

“What family values are about is that at least for two weeks a year, people can come together under a relaxed environment and enjoy the family,” Sanders explained from the Senate floor. “That is a family value that I want to see happen in this country.”

While Fox News predictably came out against the proposal, his push to reclaim family values for the left has strongly resonated on Twitter, where the Senator’s discussion-generating policies remain enormously popular. In addition, the science strongly supports his belief that everyone needs a vacation—although the problem may rest as much with our cultural values as it does with our economic system.

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According to a survey by the travel intelligence site Skift, 42 percent of working Americans didn’t use their vacation days in 2014. This is partially due to the fact that one out of four Americans don’t even receive paid time off (as the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported), whereas most other first-world countries require businesses to provide employees with a minimum number of paid vacation days (31 in France and Italy, 19 in Canada, 10 in Japan). 

That said, three out of four employees with paid vacation time didn’t use all that was available to them in 2013, and one out of ten admitted that they couldn’t really relax because they were constantly checking their work email and voicemail accounts.

That last detail is worth noting, because it touches upon a deeper problem: Americans live in a work culture that utterly drains them. A United Nations study found that 85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of women today work more than 40 hours a week, while the International Labor Organization reported that “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” Americans aren’t even protected by paid sick days should they fall ill.

Americans live in a work culture that utterly drains them.

Even on our actual work days, we tend to adopt an off-hours lifestyle that discourages meaningful relaxation. Americans are plagued with insomnia, with Sleep Education News finding that 30 to 35 percent having brief symptoms of insomnia, 15 to 20 percent reporting a short-term insomnia disorder (three months or less in duration), and 10 percent living with a chronic insomnia disorder (occurring at least three times each week for no less than three months). 

This has grown worse in recent years thanks to the Internet. As the National Sleep Foundation reports, 95 percent of Americans use digital technology (laptops, smartphones, video games, or TV) before going to bed. A 2014 study conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that technology has an adverse effect on quality of sleep.

“iPad readers took longer to fall asleep, felt less sleepy at night and had shorter REM sleep compared to the book readers, researchers found,” the Huffington Post’s Damon Beres reported. “The iPad readers also secreted less melatonin, which helps regulate your sleep. They were also more tired than book readers the following day, even if both got a full eight hours of sleep.”

While making us more connected to our jobs, both these trends actually impair our ability to work effectively. As a survey by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics found, employees who work for too long without some kind of recuperation are more likely to experience burnout. Similarly, our determination to spend those few hours we do get off each day on activities that deplete our energy—such as staying online until the wee hours—cost the average American worker 11.3 days and $2,280 in lost productivity every year, according to a September 2011 issue of the medical journal SLEEP.

So why do we live like this? Perhaps the roots of the problem can be traced to America’s most fundamental beliefs about our own society. As the legendary sociologist Max Weber explained in his classic book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Americans inherited the work ethic of their Calvinist antecedents in areas like Puritan Massachusetts. Even non-Calvinists eventually adopted the idea that work and productivity aren’t simply important for practical reasons but represent deep moral imperatives. 

To illustrate this point, Weber included a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin that he believed captured the attitude of many Americans:

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.

Another dimension of this problem is that, because Americans aren’t guaranteed vacation days like their European and Canadian counterparts, they worry more about their job security. “The two most common reasons survey respondents cited for not taking a break: They dread the pile of work awaiting them when they return, and no one else can do what they do at the office,” explained Jillian Berman of the Huffington Post. “Most telling: More than 20 percent of workers said one of the main reasons they aren’t taking all of their vacation days is because they don’t want to appear replaceable.” 

If nothing else, Sanders’ proposal can be lauded on the grounds that it would remove this apprehension from Americans’ decisions. Even guaranteeing a paltry 10 days of vacation for every employee would be enough to allow workers to take time off when they feel they need it, without worrying that that decision will be viewed as a sign of laziness or their own dispensability.

Similarly, the 20 percent of Americans who get less than six hours of sleep would benefit from not having to work longer hours than any other population in the industrialized world. 

Even on our actual work days, we tend to adopt an off-hours lifestyle that discourages meaningful relaxation. 

Because these unusually lengthy work hours leave Americans stressed out and exhausted, they naturally turn to technologies like the Internet for relief. Cyberspace, after all, is a place that is theoretically relaxing and cathartic; without having to move a muscle, one can absorb virtually any piece of entertainment or information that comes to mind. It seems like a cruel irony that this medium ultimately causes so much sleep deprivation that it minimizes its effectiveness as an actual relaxation tool, but the science doesn’t lie.

The bottom line is that if we care about our working class as human beings and want everyone to be as productive as possible, we will recognize that the body and mind are machines. They depend on a finite amount of resources in order to function properly, and if those resources are depleted, the machines will begin to wear down. If we want to conserve our human resources, we have to appreciate their limitations. 

Sanders’ proposal may not address the whole issue, but it’s certainly a great start.

Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].

Photo via Ant1_G/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.