Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Gena Bigler: We’ve come long way – but not far enough – in balancing work and leisure
At one of my early entries in the workforce, each payday there was a race to the bank. It was commonly known and accepted that there was not enough money in the bank account to cover every employee’s paycheck. Looking back now, I see how crazy that was and wonder why it didn’t occur to me and my co-workers to look for other employment.
At the time, we accepted it as normal. It was the corporate culture, and we were all well indoctrinated. In the right environment, anything can be accepted as normal.
Sometimes, we need an outside observer to help us see things with fresh eyes. Collectively, we can discuss and clarify what is good and what is not so good. Discussion and debate can open our eyes to new perspectives.
Not so long ago, workers routinely suffered unthinkable abuses. Children, who aren’t allowed in today’s factories, actually worked the machinery. Because of unions, workers now have luxuries such as bathroom breaks.
We have come a long way but not far enough. We hear “family values” tossed around, but we do not see it in our policy. The United States has no guaranteed paid maternity leave. Laws in 178 nations protect paid maternity leave. Of those, 50 have paid paternity leave.
Vacations in the United States (when we take them) are considerably shorter than those of our contemporarie,s and we often work through them. Recent studies show most Americans don’t even take lunch breaks, instead eating at their desks if they take time to eat at all.
While we are sacrificing our lunch breaks and skipping vacations, it is not increasing our productivity. A recent study showed that in Europe those nations where workers worked the fewest hours were among the most productive. The top 10 countries with least hours worked were the very same countries that appear on the top 10 most productive nations.
We are a nation that takes pride in our ability to multitask. We build complicated desks that fit over our treadmills so we can work and walk. We have DVD players and iPad holders for our cars. We eat, talk, e-mail and text on the go. We developed an entire industry of fast food so we wouldn’t have to slow down to eat. The results so far are not good. Our workers are not happy and our industries and productivity are weakening.
Nations that provide guaranteed leave for family health reasons also have the highest levels of economic competiveness. Providing paid family leave increases productivity while reducing worker turnover. Doing the right thing for families actually improves our productivity and therefore strengthens our economy.
Slowing down, taking breaks, tasting our lunch, caring for our families – all of these things increase our productivity. Our country is the only industrialized nation with no mandated annual leave. When we do take vacations, typically they are a week long. Compare that to France, one of the top 10 productive nations, where workers take a month of vacation time each year. Most other countries ensure an average of at least 20 days.
We should use these studies to take a close look at how we work and how we think about leisure time. I have heard people comparing how much they work over vacations, competitively arguing over who worked more on their break from work. Studies consistently show that we are better with a balance of work time and play time.
Just for today, take your lunch break. Taste your food. Go outside, take a five-minute stroll and become more productive in the afternoon than you were yesterday. Don’t feel guilty for taking a day to play. Don’t spend your entire vacation checking your email. Rest, connect with your family, and come back recharged and better than you were. Treasure the time you get away from work and live it to the fullest. All of these things make you a better and happier worker. All of these things make you more productive.
Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of a Kentucky business and serves on the board of the Kentucky RiverKeeper. Gena would be happy to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.