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Publication Date: Friday, June 14, 2002
Vacation for mind and body
Vacation for mind and body
(June 14, 2002)
@12by:By Diana Reynolds Roome
In the mid-sixties John Steinbeck wrote, "We work too hard and many die under the strain." Things have only gotten worse since then. Statistics show that Americans are working six weeks more per year than they did two decades ago, and eight weeks more than the average European. Here in Silicon Valley, we have taken this zeal to an extreme. Citizens of the land of the free buckle under the meanest vacation conditions in the industrialized world. Yet vacations are still regarded as guilty secrets.
"Americans are literally working themselves to death -- as jobs contribute to heart disease, hypertension, gastric problems, depression, exhaustion and a variety of other ailments," writes Judith Shor in her bestseller "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure."
Time off, like sleep, is a remedy without harmful side-effects. Instead, the typical reaction is to take medications and push on regardless. In today's climate of economic slowdown and layoffs, many people are struggling to find ways to tune out of the working world without jeopardizing their jobs. One solution is to take only a few days out of the allotted vacation time, while saving up for a real vacation some time in the future. People hope a few long weekends away won't count against them, or cause a crisis if something comes up while they're absent. Even then, it's a tough trade-off.
"If you go on vacation, work just collects," says Mark Millet, a technical marketing engineer at Cisco Systems. "If you take three days off without your computer, you come back to an overflowing inbox. You need two hours a day just to read, digest and respond to e-mail, so you're six hours behind when you get back. You end up working eleven hours two days in a row, so you ask yourself, why did I take a vacation?"
An unhealthy addiction
Cisco has an unusually generous vacation policy of four weeks, whereas many companies offer only 10 days personal leave. In any case, with the inevitable travel stresses and work pile-ups at either end, short breaks are hardly rejuvenating. For those who remain available by e-mail or cell phone (while the kids try to bury phone, laptop and parent in the sand), there's no hope of getting away mentally. As they take care of urgent work issues, partners and families feel unfairly neglected, setting up new tensions.
Yet some people don't really want to get away, says an anonymous spokesman and member of Workaholics Anonymous, which has a branch in Palo Alto.
"Sometimes they get a coronary before it really hits them that this way of life is killing them. It's comforting to work while on vacation because they enjoy their work. But people enjoy heroin too."
In Europe, by contrast, the necessity of vacation for good health is well recognized. Stress at work has become such a serious issue in the UK (whose working hours top the European Union's) that companies are held liable for workers' mental, emotional and physical health.
Every European worker, regardless of occupation, is entitled by law to at least four weeks personal vacation. French workers habitually take off the whole of August. In Germany, it's considered that getting away for at least two consecutive weeks leads to better efficiency in the long run. Doctors even prescribe extra time off for patients to attend sanatorium spas.
"Two weeks per year is crazy, you need that just to unwind," says Eva Schinn, who moved from Germany to the Bay Area in the late fifties and brought up her daughter as a single parent in Mountain View while working full-time. "When I retired, I was worn out, completely exhausted. My blood pressure was sky high."
Her vacations were spent returning to Germany to visit family, but even when she took all her vacation time, plus one week of sick leave and a week unpaid time it was still not enough, especially when there was a crisis or death in the family. Her chronic lack of time left her daughter with scars, she says. "She felt utterly abandoned sometimes. If I'd had more vacation time, I could have stayed with her more myself. It would have helped in every respect, both our family life and health." Today especially, many families are reluctant to spend the big money required by a vacation away. But what's important is spending time together.
From dis-ease to disease
Becoming tourists in our own neighborhood, camping locally, or even a retreat in our own backyard can be restorative. "A lot of people, even when they do go on vacation, continue to be busy. But vacation time should contain some quiet days," says Barbara Stefik, a spiritual and dreamwork counselor in Palo Alto.
Stefik remembers a time when she went camping with her family and they didn't do much of anything at all. "It was spectacular," she said. "A feeling of ease and peacefulness overcame everybody."
In her practice, Stefik has observed a feeling of disconnect and "a loss of meaningfulness" in peoples' lives, partly because they so seldom get off the treadmill and take time for themselves, including unplanned time to move at a restful, reflective pace. She believes there may be a link between this kind of dis-ease and disease itself, whether emotional or physical.
If going on a trip, says Reverend Wayne Dalton of Ladera Community Church in Portola Valley, it's important to remember the original meaning of the word speed. "In Old English, the word refers to success or prosperity, not velocity. The ancient greeting "Godspeed" does not mean "God hustle you along;" rather "God grant you a successful and prosperous journey." Such a journey takes time, and needs plenty of rest stops along the way.
"Life is meant to be savored slowly, not in fits and starts of two-on-and-five off," agrees Delphino Cornali, a Palo Alto software consultant, who believes the term 'real life' should be substituted for 'vacation.' Four years working in Oxford, England showed him how different the quality of life can be when everyone gets seven weeks of paid holidays a year.
"What a civilized way to live!" said Cornali. "And what a concept that everyone, regardless of seniority, has the same need for generous amounts of time off. Sure, I wasn't bringing home the big bucks I'd been earning in Silicon Valley, but life there was very sustainable.
"When he returned to the Bay Area, he was working 50 hours a week with great pay, bonuses, stock options, Friday afternoon barbecues and paid weekends in Las Vegas - for which he had no wish. Vacation time was as restricted as ever. His requests for more time off to do what he wanted were stonewalled.
"I quit after 15 months, burned out," says Cornali. "Work crowds out life. Sometimes what we need is to be transported somewhere else -- by a long hike, a nice bicycle ride or even a movie. But work consumes so much energy, often there's none left for anything else."
Cornali took a year off, spending time in Italy where he discovered his family's home-town and a multitude of cousins. He wrote a cookbook and children's stories for his nieces, took a creative writing class, hiked and learned how to cure olives. "In short, I had a life," he says.
If this sounds like an impossible dream, it's always possible to argue that a good vacation is an investment in even more dynamic performance on the job.
"Sometimes we just need to back off for a while," says Dalton. "Returning ... we may find ourselves full of serenity, strangely stronger and ready to roll up our sleeves and do good work."
Take note: Dalton heeded his own advice, and is now off on sabbatical.
Workaholics Anonymous: www.workaholics-anonymous.org or 510-273-9253