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Why Your Brain Needs a Break

Can't remember your last vacation? You're not alone. The average American does not take enough time off to fix burn-out.

We Americans are collectively suffering from "vacation deficit disorder," insists Joe Robinson. And we don't even admit we have a problem. Workers often compete to see who has less of a life than the next guy.

Americans work more than anyone else. In fact, we work 100 hours more per year than the famously nose-to-grindstone Japanese. And we put in up to three months a year more than Europeans.

America is the only country that does not mandate paid vacation leave. China gets three weeks. Europe averages six.

Call it the incredible shrinking vacation. The average vacation in America now numbers a pathetic three to four days—a long weekend. And this year, according to a recent survey, one in seven Americans is taking no vacation at all.

The problem is, the little time we now allot ourselves for vacations can't do what vacations are supposed to do. "You need more time to fix burnout," explains Joe Robinson, author of Work To Live: The Guide to Getting a Life. You have to be cut off from a stressor for a sufficient amount of time to give your mind and body a break. And you have to allow two weeks for your body to rebound.

But trying to get more than one week at a time is difficult, especially in today's climate. People have to beg their employers for any time in the first place. The upshot is they wind up feeling guilty for taking time off. And vacations feel illegitimate.

Robinson points out that Americans are going through a cycle of overwork that began with the recession of the early '80s then shifted into high gear in the late '80s with a series of technological advances—fax machines, desktop computers, cell phones. We have lots of tools that bestow on us a false sense of urgency.

Add to that the fact that labor has been cut to the bone. Everyone left is doing multiple jobs and working extra hours. We're living in "a world of no boundaries" between work and life, says Robinson.

Working more than 48 hours a week doubles the load of stress. It puts one on course for heart disease.

Robinson is quick to insist that the belief that Europeans are lazy is nothing but a convenient myth. "The fact is, they get more done in less time. Four European countries are more efficient and productive than the U.S.—Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Norway. Companies in those countries employ management techniques that make longer vacations work."

By contrast, in the U.S., "managers have an irrational fear that they need people in all those chairs all the time or everything will fall apart," says Robinson. And overtime is often unproductive because it is conducted by fatigued brains. Many studies show that most Americans are chronically running on too little sleep.

"If you work seven 50-hour weeks in a row you don't get more done than in seven 40-hour weeks," says Robinson. "Overtime is not productive and fatigue seeps into regular work hours."

Oh, then there's the fact that whatever vacation time they take, people bring their work—and their work mentality—with them. It isn't just the laptop. It's a productivity mentality that has people measuring how many sights they see and how many things they do in three days.

"You have to unpack before you pack," is the way Robinson sees it. "Put together an unpacking list of the stuff that has no business going with you," he advises. These include work worries, the boss, colleagues, career progress, laptops, pagers, cell phones. Stash it until you get back.

To the pile of stuff you leave home add your guilt over taking a vacation. You also have to put aside the productivity yardstick and remember how to "do" leisure.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Target your passions and build your vacation around the things you like to do.
  • Wander. Yes, relearn how to explore and discover, with no other purpose.
  • Linger with a friend over dinner.
  • Put on your kid hat. Connect with play.

Happy vacation!