This entry is a bit of a rant. I saw three patients today who haven’t had a vacation in ages, because they fear taking one.

At work I often see people stressed and symptomatic from work. You would think my advice to take a vacation would be happily received. Often it goes over like a recommendation for a root canal.  Vacation is often seen as undesirable, scary, unrealistic, or just plain impossible for many U.S. workers. Americans are overall suspicious if not antipathic about vacation.

When I first came to work at my present job I was told the clinic was open on New Year’s day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the day after Thanksgiving. Why? The previous doctor wanted to work (probably a combination of wanting  to earn more and nothing else he could think to do). Also, these working holidays were financially good; these days were packed. Patients came in not because they wanted to, but because they can’t get time off otherwise.*

Besides a handful of national holidays, the typical American worker gets 2-3 weeks/year which is much less than in many countries. Only 57% of U.S. workers use up all of the days of which they are entitled, compared with 89% of workers in France.

The American vacation often comes with strings attached. U.S. companies don’t like employees taking off more than one week at a time. Others expect them to be on call or check their e-mail etc. Patients buy into this. they feel that vital they must ‘check in’, or if they don’t their jobs will be taken away from them. So a vacation just means you work from somewhere else.

It’s a different story in countries we want to call peers. For example, in Germany it is not uncommon to get 6 weeks of paid vacation a year, plus national holidays. It’s typical for Germans to take off three consecutive weeks in August. While the country shuts down some, the nation’s economy hasn’t crashed. I suspect Europeans find our vacation beliefs both horrible and silly.  We must come across as robots or crazy. We must actually want being this way for why else would we put up with it?

There are several reasons why Americans work so hard/have so little vacation time.  There is the ‘Protestant work ethic’ in the psyche of the nation.  There is a fear of being fired for demanding something like Oliver Twist asking for more. ‘More!?” says the boss and out we go.

Another reason for the difference is a legal one: paid time off is mandated by law in many parts of the world. U.S. employers are not obligated by federal law to offer any paid vacation. That makes the U.S. the only advanced nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee its workers annual leave.  In the recent bad economy the fear of layoffs and the ever-faster pace of work mean many Americans are reluctant to be absent from the office — anxious that they might look like they’re not committed to their job.

I sense Americans believe more than Europeans hard work is associated with success and this leads to happiness.  Americans maximize their happiness by working,and Europeans maximize theirs through leisure.

Yet, I know of no evidence that supports working people to death gives you a competitive advantage.  The USA ranks 4th in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies. Sweden – a country that by law offers workers five weeks of paid vacation – comes in second.

There have been some attempts to put into law more vacation time, but opponents (I suspect Republicans) said that it would have a negative impact on business and government shouldn’t get involved in the workplace in this way. When in doubt the “S” word is brought out**. This always works to keep things status quo in the States.

I continue to advocate the physical and mental necessities to take regular vacation. Don’t let The Powers That Be bully us. We suffer enough as it is.

*I put an end to this. We are closed now on major holidays. The clinic hasn’t fallen apart. The staff are thrilled.