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Vacation Matters

North American Summit Looks at Time Poverty and Vacation Law

Peasant_TBYTD.jpgThe United States is the only nation other than the Guyanas, Nepal, and Myanmar without a paid-vacation law. Thirty percent of Americans don’t get paid vacation; half of us get one week or less.

Last week Worldchanging ally John de Graaf and Take Back Your Time hosted the first national Vacation Matters Summit in Seattle to discuss the organization’s efforts to get a federal paid-vacation law on the books. De Graaf and others helped draft the bill that Florida Congressman Alan Grayson introduced on May 21. The Paid Vacation Act, or H.R. 2564 is, in de Graaf’s words, a “modest” bill: it would require companies with 100 or more employees to grant all employees one week of paid vacation per year. Three years after the bill’s passage companies with 50 or more employees would have to offer one week, and companies with 100 or more employees, two weeks. The bill needs both grassroots support and congressional allies. (Check out de Graaf’s excellent rebuttal (PDF) to the already vocal opposition.)

The conference, fittingly, was modest in size; however, it was wide-ranging in scope. Panelists and participants included adventure-travel tour operators, labor union lawyers, political consultants, physicians and psychologists, simplicity advocates, and university students already wary of entering a work world where burnout is all but guaranteed. Dr. Sarah Speck, medical director of the Center for Cardiovascular Wellness at Swedish Hospital, presented a physiology lesson on the negative effects of overwork that scared the living hell out of all of us, and effectively back up her contention that “vacation is health care.” Fran Mainella, former director of the National Parks Service under the Bush Administration, talked about hiking to relieve the stress of working in post-9/11 Washington D.C., where even the parks director was instructed to keep a week’s worth of supplies and a gas mask stowed in her car. (She also talked about the importance of reintroducing the concept of play to kids and parents. Several speakers touched on this; two organizations combating “nature deficit disorder” are the Outdoor Foundation and No Child Left Inside.)

Here’s a handful of interesting ideas from the talks I attended, some new, some that bear repeating.

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CEOs used to understand the connection between vacation time and productivity. Joe Robinson, work-life balance consultant and author of Work to Live, noted that in the 1920s company executives regularly commissioned fatigue studies; however, not many of those studies have been done since. “Almost a century later, American business has forgotten what it once knew — that a productive workforce is a rested one.” In fact, productivity has gone up in companies that have increased their vacation policies, enough in some cases to eliminate overtime costs. Additionally, good vacation policy begets loyalty. According to Robinson, a 5 percent boost in employee retention boosts earnings by at least 25 percent. Robinson pointed out that American companies based in Europe haven’t had to stop doing business there because vacation laws make it impossible for them to succeed. (Nor is it impossible to replicate European work standards here. My former employer, Random House, is owned by a German parent company and therefore grants five weeks of paid vacation. The reluctance to give up such a rare benefit is a major factor in employee retention.)

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Robinson also reminded us that “neurons crave novelty” and when we stop providing them with new experiences they stop noticing things and making memories — the effect of looking back on a year and not being able to remember what you did during all that time. Robinson pointed out that as we transfer to a knowledge economy, vacation time becomes even more important. After all, the product in that context is fresh thought.

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Jim Lewis of Western Michigan University, who with a colleague just started a study of staycations, demonstrated how much of a region could be included in a “one tank of gas” vacation. The staycation, which is here to stay at least as long as the economy’s down, could theoretically bring new money into towns by keeping existing money local. “Your town now becomes an amenity, becomes a vacation spot…Community recreation programs now become part of tourism.” However, not many towns are set up to be destinations unto themselves and would require significant boosts in cultural and recreational offerings to reap the economic rewards of the staycation trend. Sounds like a classic spend-money-to-make-money scenario, but community volunteering would go a ways to offsetting some of those costs. Gaylene Carpenter and Lori Hager of the University of Oregon presented Using the Arts to Promote Vacations (And Vice Versa), and their research noted that more vacation days would make community arts and cultural assets easier to create and maintain. Staycations plus increased vacation time equals more opportunities for a little voluntourism at home (look for more on this later in the week). Volunteer tasks oriented to staycationers could help improve a community’s “amenities,” whether those are arts organizations or parks.

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We’ve reached a new low with time poverty when solitude becomes a curiosity worthy of its own syllabus. Panelist Mara Adelman, Associate Professor in the Department of Communications at Seattle University, designed a course on Restorative Solitude in which the very concept of solitude is studied and discussed, and students participate in experiments like swearing off all nonessential media usage for four days. (Adelman told us that although this experiment is difficult for students, it’s the parents who object the most — a good thing to note, considering how much hand-wringing parents engage in regarding their children’s apparent inability to disengage from constant connectivity.)

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Dr. Speck stated that there’s a “paucity of literature” in the medical world regarding the positive effects of vacations. There is, however, plenty of research showing the detriments of stress, and how down time allows a change of perception that limits automatic stress response. (One study Dr. Speck cited, Interheart: A Global Case-Control Study of Risk Factors for Acute Myocardial Infarction, found that as far as heart-attack risk factors go, psychosocial stress is as significant as having uncontrolled high blood pressure or being medically obese.) Although many preventative care physicians and mental health professionals routinely recommend time off to their patients, the severity of the health risk posed by job-related stress has yet to be taken seriously by the medical community as a whole, or by American society. One of the suggestions at the end of the conference was to create informational brochures and posters for doctors’ offices about the effects of job-related stress. Maybe some day your cubicle will come with a warning label.

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Cecile Andrews, author of Slow is Beautiful, and an adjunct professor at Antioch University in Seattle, spoke about the success of the Slow Food movement, particularly how it focused first on experience — a vision of the “joyful community,” as Andrews puts it — and let that vision spread before linking the movement to the environment, or health, or any other issue. She suggests that the way to talk about the need for vacation is by first emphasizing the role of leisure in creating this joyful community. Certainly, this would be a different message, and a more complete vision, than the travel industry currently spins — basically binging on relaxation. (We should all get hazard pay for every time a writer or PR person suggests vacation is about “pampering” — apparently, we’re all overgrown babies in need of a good swaddling.)

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In a brainstorming session, a student from Indiana expressed frustration at outreach strategies that seemed to only preach to the choir. However, True Blue Innovation, a Seattle-based polling firm, found that 60 percent of Washington State voters — more than the required majority — would support a paid-vacation initiative if it appeared on a state ballot in 2010. Based on this, many of the participants agreed that focusing on the minority opposition, some of whom will never change their minds, is a waste of energy. (I think True Blue Innovation deserves a closer look: founder Bill Monto explained that by using an automated touch tone–only polling process, the company got rid of the overhead that makes polling data unaffordable to smaller causes and nonprofits. Ventures like True Blue could be game-changers. After all, before you focus on mobilizing the choir, it’s a good idea to confirm the size of said choir.)

These ideas represent a small sample of what came out of the two-day conference. I hope other panelists and attendees will chime in with what they learned.

Although the vacation bill is U.S.-specific, the themes of Vacation Matters are universal. The conference had many Canadian participants because even with a paid-vacation law, Canada is experiencing similar issues with time poverty and the devaluation of vacation time. And the U.S. has successfully exported its work habits and values to places where down time seemed unassailable. Ten years ago The New York Times was already decrying the death of the siesta as Spain responded to the demands of a global economy.

Take Back Your Time Day is October 24th. No matter where you live, put it on your calendar. Think of it as a mid-Fall state of the union on your health and happiness.

This article is part of a weeklong guest author series on sustainability issues in travel and tourism.

Carissa Bluestone is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. She helped create Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, and continues to consult on Worldchanging’s book ventures. A former editor at Fodor’s Travel Publications, she has spent 10 years in the travel publishing world, editing and contributing to guidebooks and online publications.

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Comments

You Americans really live in the middle ages. The funny thing is that many conservative Americans think we Europeans are Communists for granting workers so many rights. Ridiculous. So, I think your initiative is great - take your time back!


Posted by: Maria on 17 Aug 09

Maria is right.We Americans really do live in the dark ages, in so many ways. That could not be made more clear than the remarkable lack of objectivity and sophistication we see in the American people's response to the debate about healthcare reform and the remarkably successful health systems of other nations. Americans are, largely, uneducated and biased regarding the so called European lifestyle, many so by choice. The influence of religion in America's culture cannot be overestimated as a cause, the belief that hard work is the only pathway to righteousness, while play and relaxation, seen as forms of diversion from hard work, is of little or no worth. Actually, the American mentality regarding work and play is pathological, physically, mentally and spiritually.


Posted by: Austintatious on 18 Aug 09

Err, I would put it down on my calendar, but Oct. 24th is already the www.350.org Global Day of Action on climate change.


Posted by: Richard Graves on 22 Aug 09

Yes, I know about 350 Day. I mention it in a related post: Travel Matters http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/010355.html


Posted by: Carissa Bluestone on 22 Aug 09

Ultimately we need national legislation that protects vacation benefits. But in the meantime, it may be strategically wise to win them on a state by state basis. If vacation benefits can be adopted in a few states, it will work as a model for other states and eventually on a national scale. Does your state have elections coming up in 2010? If so, ask the candidates for Governor and state legislature their position on vacation rights benefits.


Posted by: Gordon Hanson on 24 Aug 09

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