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stress isn't stressed properly
pto leaves no time for vacation
by katherine l (aka clevertitania) (@CleverTitania)

So Penn & Teller did a Bullshit episode on stress, and more specifically, that the stress relief industry is crap at its core. But there's something that bugged me about one of Penn's comments.

The argument was made that cavemen had more stress than modern man, because of the constant fear of predators, search for shelter, and search for sustenance. But as was also said in the episodes, stress is about what you do with it. I imagine Cro-Magnon man used it instinctively, since it was built as a defense mechanism, and so it wasn't quite the same as modern man.

I agree that I like stress, on occasion, and I tend to work well under pressure. But it's the long term stresses that are causing me to feel a sense of depression. That's what changes with time. It's how much of the world we perceive, and that many of the worries we have are impossible to put aside in our minds.

Cro-Magnon man had a lot of worries, no doubt. But I think it's also safe to say they were also less inclined to excessive introspection. Worrying is a product of evolution. The more our brains can have multiple and expansive thoughts, the more things can weigh on our mind at once. A hunter gatherer culture is all about focus on tasks, not worrying about the next month tasks.

And Americans, more than the inhabitants of many advanced economies, are systematically breeding ourselves to worry.

On Bill Maher this week, he pointed out the real threat to American's health and wellness. We work too much. Now that's not to say we work too hard. In fact, I think the argument could be made that we are (by and large) the laziest nation in the world. But that can also be attributed to the the amount of time we spend at work.

I got this from the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

Washington, DC: The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. As a result, 1 in 4 private-sector workers in the U.S. do not receive any paid vacation or paid holidays.

The report, No-Vacation Nation, by Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt, finds that European workers are legally guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with 25 and even 30 or more days common in some countries. The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger when legal holidays are included. The United States does not guarantee any paid holidays, but most rich countries provide between 5 and 13 per year, in addition to paid vacation days.

Let me give you an anecdotal example of the results of the amount of time the average person has to put in for work.

I haven't had an actual vacation in about 10 years. The last two years, I managed to get close to two full weeks around Christmas, thanks to weekends falling nicely around paid holidays. Of course, that time of year, I certainly have less money than any other time. Plus, by the time the holidays roll around, with the exception of the 4 day Thanksgiving weekend, I haven't had a day off since Labor Day. Now you might think, that's normal and reasonable, right? But my Romanian extension team of four people had been off, collectively, for about two weeks during the months of October and November. And let me tell you something, when they got going, those guys got some work done.

Until I became management (which meant I was practically expected to work 50 hours per week with no overtime) at my last company, I got two weeks of PTO time a year, which was both my sick and vacation time. PTO time is accrued, which means you have to build it up. If you took a vacation early in the year, you could borrow against it. But that also meant that, if you got sick later in the year, you couldn't take a day off. And by the way, if you were willing to take an unpaid sick day, it counted negatively against you in yearly reviews. That was a company requirement.

There was also no personal time. Until I became management, rarely was it ever permitted for us to flex time, like working an extra hour one day, to leave early the next. So this meant that things like doctor's appointments required using PTO time. My son, thanks to his ADD, goes to the doctor 4 times a year. That doesn't include twice a year trips to the dentist, annual ophthalmologist visits, etc. Because of my diabetes, I go to the doctor 4 times a year myself. Plus the same other miscellaneous doctors' visits as my son.

So when you pile it all up, most of my PTO was gone without anything left for an actual vacation. Sometimes I would try to schedule multiple appointments a day, and just take an entire day. It actually worked to my favor, but only if I could squeeze three appointments into that day.

In the last 10 years, the only real time I have ever had off of work, is when I was unemployed. The first week is terror, btw, but week two is like a gift from the gods.

So what has this lead to? Well for one thing, weekends aren't a time to do things and be active. They are a time to do as little as humanly possible. I have no desire to accomplish squat on the weekends, when I'd put in a 50 hour week. When I'd get an extended bit of time off, I might be enticed to do more, but I still want at least one day of inactivity. And it's not about being lazy. It's about having no requirement or time table to do anything. At its core, my job was about having way too many responsibilities and not nearly enough time to accomplish any of it.

You know how they say you crave milk when you're low on calcium?

Oh, and was I a hard worker? Well I'd like to think so. But I also know that I was often so worried and burned out by the end of the week, that I'm sure I did half of what I should've on Friday. When you feel like you're a mouse, trapped on a wheel, you also aren't exactly motivated to do your best work for the people who own the cages. I'll wager you good money that there are more people in the United States who resent their bosses than in just about any other country (saving some third world locations).

The industry that's meant to combat the problem of stress is indeed bullshit. I will go for a massage on occasion (or did when there was a bit more money in the bank), but that's just because I don't do chiropractors. And I have some arthritis issues that tend to bunch the nerves. But I don't spend money on aromatherapy. If I buy a candle, I just buy whatever scent I like.

But the United States is experiencing a collective meltdown over stress; that is the reality. You can feel the tension just ready to pop in a lot of people. And as tensions over the economy rise, which is pretty much the greatest cause of ongoing stress for most Americans, it's only going to get worse. We're working ourselves to death to escape the weight of overwhelming debt, and that's even the fiscally responsible ones. The housing market collapse might've been caused by people not buying houses they could afford, but it's now trickled down to effect other home owners, as unemployment rises. Homelessness is suddenly something have to fear, in a world where they never even considered the possibility. Think that might cause some muscle tension and depression?

I have to admit, I just don't see us getting legislation that would create mandatory guidelines for paid vacation time. As many Americans back it, I still don't see them putting this on the books. The small business owners will automatically yank the thought away. But as true as I believe that to be, I also believe that we desperately need it.

I was a salaried/management employee for one year of my life. In that time I had two full weeks of non-accrued vacation and five sick days. That is the most time I've ever had off at a job. I'm a 34 year old woman, and I haven't had a legitimate vacation since I was in my 20's. That's not right. It shouldn't be that way. My son is already stressed enough by the homework regiment create by standardized testing in our public schools. By the time he gets to the real world, he'll be all ready to be a type A personality. If he goes into the work place as it exists today, he'll be an even bigger wreck than I am now.

In the movie Sabrina (and yes I prefer the remake, so sue me) when describing life in Paris, Sabrina says, "They work as hard as anyone, they just know when to quit and enjoy themselves." Far too many Americans might know when to quit, but don't have that option. And with the advent of wireless everything, lots of them also seem to forget how to quit at all. Even I fell victim. The first month I had a work laptop, I spent way so much time using it at home, my HR rep was harping at me about burnout.

American's need to take some cues from the Europeans, on how to treat our workers, and how to treat ourselves. Not only will we be healthier and happier, but we'll be more productive. We'll like our jobs more, and by extension, we'll like our lives more. Not just because the work week won't suck us dry, but also because we'll actually have time for a real life away from our job.


When I grow up, I want to be; whoever Joss Whedon wants to be, when he grows up. I am a writer because it's the first thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning; aside from eating and using the lavatory of course. My work includes screenplays, short stories, film/TV/music reviews and socio-political commentary. The last one is a fancy way of saying I like to shoot my mouth off on many topics. I excel at using $1.50 words. They gone up, thanks to inflation. Isn't our economy awesome?

more about katherine l (aka clevertitania)


personal responsibility
the most annoying phrase of the day
by katherine l (aka clevertitania)
topic: news
published: 3.18.10

do unto others...
why i'm sick of being the bigger person
by katherine l (aka clevertitania)
topic: news
published: 8.23.10


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