As a Brit married to an American, I find the differences between our two cultures completely fascinating. On my first trip to the States to visit my in-laws, I was immediately struck by the truth of the cliché that everything is bigger in America: the roads are wider, the supermarkets strike a genuine fear into my heart (all except for Trader Joe’s — I can handle Trader Joe’s), and the largest burger on the Five Guys menu is so big it could feed me for days.
After we moved to the States, it took me a while to notice a deeper and more subtle cultural difference, though. Great as the go-getting American pioneer spirit is, I discovered that putting so much value on hard work can have the negative side-effect of an unhealthy attitude toward rest and vacation.
At first, I was a little shocked at how little paid time off we were given at the startup where I worked (15 days a year, including sick days). After asking around a bit, though, I realized that the paid leave we were given was comparatively generous, for an American company.
As my first year working in America drew to a close, I figured I’d better schedule in the rest of the days I hadn’t taken off so that they didn’t go to waste, given that they didn’t carry over to the next year. It was when I went to log my request for time off that I noticed it: despite the fact that we had so little to start with, I had used more of my vacation days than anyone else on the team. Suddenly, I felt guilty — would my colleagues think I was a slacker? Why was I the only one taking advantage of our paid time off?
When I looked into it, I quickly discovered the reason for this culture clash in attitudes and expectations about vacation: it turns out that America is the only industrialized country without a legal minimum required number of paid vacation days in the world. To put things in context, in the U.K., full-time employees are legally entitled to a minimum of 5.6 weeks of paid annual leave (not including sick days), and in America, 10 days tends to be the average. No wonder something that seemed so common-sense to me as a Brit was completely foreign to my American colleagues.
And this isn’t just about vacation; the American all-work-and-no-play ethic carries through to parental and sick leave. Parents and those who need time to care for their health or that of a family member are left to the mercy of their employers, without any legislation to protect their rights to paid time off through these different life circumstances.
So why does all of this matter? It matters because rest is a fundamental human need, and without it, we burn out and don’t function properly, either as employees or in our personal lives. We need rest to be with our families, to boost our mental and physical health, to keep our minds agile, open, and creative — to be happy. And if we want to build a society that empowers parents and other caregivers, that cherishes empathy and compassion and family values, we need to make it financially viable for people to take time out when they need it.
The importance of rest and play is well-documented. In addition to the myriad (and rather obvious) health benefits, scientists have proven it can also boost creativity and productivity.
Rest has wider-reaching benefits for society, too: as Manoush Zomorodi explains in her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything, well-rested people tend to give back to their neighbors, care for the elderly and sick, and are better able to find creative solutions to social and cultural problems like climate change. And then there’s the fact that better-rested parents who are able to spend more time with their families raise happier children, which in turn leads to lower crime rates, lower depression and suicide rates, and an all-around happier and healthier society.
Not only is rest good for us on a human level, but it also makes good business sense, too. In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown refers to research that proves that “play has a positive effect on the executive function of the brain.” All of the skills we need to work well are enhanced by time off spent resting and playing.
In Silicon Valley, some companies are taking notice of this research and experimenting with policies where employees can take as much paid time off as they like. The impact seems to be mixed: the company my sister-in-law works for uses this policy, and she says that overall it seems like it might result in people taking less time off than they would otherwise because of the perception that taking more time off means you’re lazy or unmotivated — that idea still lingers in the work culture. The change will only really happen when our leaders model the value of rest to us and actively encourage us to take the vacation time that we are due.
Years ago, I was called into the CEO’s office for a welcome chat on my first day of an internship with the environmental charity, Earthwatch. Among other things, he told me very firmly that he didn’t admire people who stayed at work late, but in fact, saw their behavior as an issue: our work needs to get done during working hours, he said. When people consistently stay late, it is a sign that they’re either not using their time efficiently enough, or they have too much work and aren’t asking for help. If only more companies could take this attitude, I thought to myself.
In his classic book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper argues that a healthy society values leisure. He writes, “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”
More paid time off may not fix all of society’s troubles (it certainly hasn’t in the U.K.), but I truly believe that it could have a significant impact. Hopefully, as more evidence emerges to support the benefits of rest, the unhealthy idea that we have to prove our worth through hard work will start to disappear, and we’ll discover a deeper joy in our time at work as well as in our rest.