John de Graaf wants America to relax. Literally. Through his advocacy group Take Back Your Time, he is urging Americans to stop working long hours and politically mandate a paid vacation bill. Why is overwork damaging the U.S.?
The statistics are sobering: the U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries that doesn't mandate paid vacation time. The number of Americans who said that they were going to take a vacation in the next six months is at a 30-year low, according to an April survey. And Americans average nine more weeks of labor per year than countries in Western Europe.
If Americans are overworked and vacation-starved, what's the fallout? Depression, many health care officials say. A 2004 World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School study placed the U.S. at the top of the list of depressed countries.
John de Graaf doesn't want to rest in his fight to give Americans the vacations they deserve. Ironically, he is tireless in advocating for vacation days as a mandatory requirement for all American employers. His Seattle-based group Take Back Your Time
is a nonprofit dedicated to studying issues relating to overwork. They claim Americans want what TBYT are pushing for, but the feds aren't listening.
A July 2008 poll conducted by the group found that more than two-thirds of Americans would support the passage of a paid vacation law. de Graaf listened: He is working with a Congressman to consider national legislation requiring paid vacation time. He told DigitalJournal.com within the next month or so there should be an announcement about a paid vacation bill.
Why dedicate extracurricular efforts to such an issue? DigitalJournal.com spoke to de Graaf about his work to keep Americans from working overtime.
DigitalJournal.com: What do you see as the main problems when North Americans work long hours?
John de Graaf: Long working hours result in poorer health: Americans are nearly twice as likely to suffer from chronic disease in old age as are Europeans and we live shorter lives. In part this is a result of the stress of overwork. We are too tired from working to exercise, eat more fast foods, don't sleep enough and all those things make us number one in obesity. Long hours reduce time for families and friends, also key in improving health and building community. Long hours mean less time for environmental stewardship, we use more throwaways and convenience products for example...The negative impacts of our long working hours culture are huge.
DigitalJournal.com: Americans are supposedly working five weeks longer than they did in 1976. What do you attribute that to?
de Graaf: There are arguments about that, but the work week has crept up in length by as much as half a percent a year and vacations are now shorter, where they are given at all.
In Washington State where I live, the percentage of companies providing paid vacation time dropped from 73% in 2007 to 62% in 2008 - 11% in one year. That's probably true nationally, although I don't have data for that. Moreover, families now virtually all have two breadwinners so family work time has actually increased by 700 hours annually, or roughly 13 to 17 weeks. Downsizing in the 80s also led to longer hours, and it's not just long hours; people are now expected to work faster and jobs are more demanding and stressful.
DigitalJournal.com: You are asking for a shorter work week. What benefits, physical and mental, would that offer to the average American worker?
de Graaf: We'd see health improvements; time to be active citizens by rebuilding community ...strengthening families, impacting the environment less. One study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that by reducing our work hours to European levels, we'd reduce our energy use and carbon footprint by up to 25%. There are almost too many benefits to mention.
DigitalJournal.com: In this recession, many people might consider working even more in order to make ends meet. Is that a viable solution? What would you recommend?
de Graaf: This is self-defeating ultimately. By getting more and more stressed, people will have greater health problems, more health costs. It would be far better for people to demand that layoffs be reduced by shortening and sharing working hours as President Obama suggested in his inaugural address... We need policies that make for a more balanced life, as, for the most part, exist in every other industrial country--paid family leave, paid sick leave, especially important when you have potential pandemics like swine flu, paid vacation time, limits on mandatory overtime, increases in the minimum wage, a more fair and progressive tax system, hourly pay parity for part-time workers, pay equity for women, universal health care that is not tied to the job...It's time for a change and I sense that the American people -- the right-wing noise machine excepted -- understand that.