It may be summertime, but the living isn't exactly easy.
Vacations are increasingly being squeezed by our inability to disconnect and the pile of work we return to after the holiday ends. And our colleagues who stay behind aren't faring much better. Scrambling to cover for absent employees, they try to keep productivity up even as someone crucial to their process is gone week after week.
No wonder many are finding that going away is too much work. Only 40 percent of Americans use their vacation time, 60 percent say they work while on vacation, and many complain about the work-crunch before and after the holidays.
What to do then? Ending vacations might technically work, but it is a terrible idea. The zeitgeist is all about fine-tuning our wobbly work/life balance, and we are thus regularly reminded how vital taking breaks is for our emotional health, our productivity, and even the health of our hearts.
There is one solution, European of course, which would allow us all to take a real break without feeling compelled to check in or burden our colleagues. Everyone should go on vacation at the same time.
A new study out of Sweden has found that the benefits of vacations are more deeply felt when people synchronize their holidays.
A team led by Terry Hartig, a professor of psychology, found that antidepressant prescriptions go down when the number of people who take vacation simultaneously goes up. He says this is an example of "collective restoration," the idea that we have an easier time winding down when everyone else is too.
Hartig concludes that people are happier when they are not fully in control of their own time, but rather when our schedules are "socially regulated" by external laws or rules.
This is already happening in an unofficial capacity in countries like France and Italy, which slow down considerably during the month of August as citizens vacate big cities en masse for resort towns. And of course it's happening in an official capacity among those who follow religious calendars and strictly observe days off from work, like the Sabbath. (Indeed, I often regret my faith in the Jewish God isn't strong enough to compel me to keep the Sabbath. Saturday in New York is just too enticing.)
I know, the likelihood of this happening stateside anytime soon is small. First off, unlike other developed countries, the United States doesn't guarantee paid vacation, and as a result one in four Americans have to choose between a holiday and a paycheck — a number that has grown in the past 20 years. We can't even make sure people take time off, much less do it together.
But we can still shoot for collective restoration on a smaller scale, whether it's department by department, business by business, or small town by small town. Yes, we will have to learn to expect less in order to give less, but considering how ineffective our vacations are now, that is a bargain we should be willing to make. Our offices will go on cruise control, bringing productivity to a bare minimum. Maybe our favorite cafés will close early or completely, the local SoulCycle will only offer half its normal schedule, and we might not be able to immediately take care of that billing problem at the doctor's office. In exchange we will get a chance — better yet, a mandate — to truly let go.
Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for TheWeek.com.
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