By Stephanie Hammerwold
A quick Google search for work-life balance brings up thousands of articles on the topic. Whether it is discussion of how Americans work too many hours or the amount of stress caused by lack of balance, this is a topic that we discuss endlessly. Yet nothing seems to change. Many of us still squeeze in work by smart phone and are sending off emails even when on vacation. Even when we do manage to take time off from work, there is often guilt for doing so. Other countries seem to have figured out how to take time off and spend some time enjoying life, so why haven’t Americans managed to do the same?
Feeling Guilty for Taking Time Off
I have worked in places where people look down upon those who take time off. It usually involves snarky comments about a coworker’s vacation. Maybe something along the lines of, “Oh, it must be nice to be able to take off to Hawaii and avoid all the drama here.” That is usually followed by a derisive grunt. Even taking a sick day can elicit scorn from coworkers who boast about how they managed to come to work sick. Even though showing up to work sick can delay recovery and can also get others sick, we still do it quite a bit in this country. There’s something wrong with a society that values people showing up at work over staying home to rest and recuperate.
Michael Moore’s recent movie Where to Invade Next shows just how far behind the U.S. lags when it comes to taking time off. The people he talks to in countries with generous paid leave seem happier and are shocked to hear just how little paid time off we get in the U.S. They are still productive at work, and the extra time off means that they are more relaxed and less stressed. I have friends who have lived in other countries who share this opinion. Here in the U.S. though, I have talked with business owners and managers who say things like, “I already give my employees a job, why should I give them paid time off? When they aren’t in the office, they are of no value, so I shouldn’t have to pay them.” To me, this line of thinking is deeply flawed. Taking care of employees should be a top priority. Happier employees are more productive and generally have better morale. Why not treat them to things like paid time off, so they can get the time to rest and relax enough to come back and tackle their jobs with a fresh mind?
This guilt trip around time off needs to stop. We owe it to ourselves and our workforce. Life is more than a job. Whether it’s family obligations, time to read a good book or stepping outside for a nice hike, we need to celebrate time off.
Why Time Off is Important
Most of us have felt the consequences of overwork. It can be stressful and exhausting, and such things can bring on a host of physical and mental health problems. Giving employees paid time off is an investment in their wellbeing and a recognition that they all have lives outside the office doors.
Our identities get so wrapped up in our work. But all of us are so much more than our job titles. We need to embrace those parts of our lives just as much as we throw ourselves into work. This idea that we have to put work first gets in the way of that. It’s time for a cultural shift and an acknowledgement that it is OK to take time off to do the things we love. This is good for mental health and for those we share our lives with.
Enough is Enough
I used to be the kind of employee who always had a large bank of paid time off because I rarely managed to take time off. It got to the point where taking a day off almost felt like I was ditching work, and that came with feelings of guilt. Even on vacation or the rare sick day, I would find myself thinking about what I should be doing at work. And I am guilty of electing to work from home rather than take a sick day because at least that way I could still get things done without spreading my germs to my co-workers.
Since embarking on starting my own HR consulting business and now transitioning into founding a nonprofit, I have realized the value in changing the balance between work and life. My business endeavors of the last few years have not been without their long hours and weekend work, and sometimes it is hard to convince myself that I do not need to be working—especially when my home office is only a few steps away from where I’m curled up in a comfy chair with a good book. But I am also in a position where I have control over my schedule in a way I did not when I worked for someone else. Of course, it also helps to have a business partner who is not afraid to close my laptop and to tell me to stop working when he knows I need a break.
I think we also reach a point in a long workday where we no longer become effective. Since working for myself, I have learned I can make a six-hour day just as valuable as a ten-hour day if I make an effort to do so. It is not about the amount of time I put in but the quality of work I produce.
I have been able to plan time to hike, work on my fiction, travel or simply curl up with a good book. And I can feel big differences in my general wellbeing. We need to stop thinking that such things are less important than work. Life should not be a competition to prove how busy we are.