Why are Americans working so hard?

The latest Expedia numbers about how few vacations days Americans receive (and subsequently use) have come out. While this annual survey is a fairly blatant tactic to encourage/enrage people into booking trips to Orlando and Hawaii, I always linger over the findings, as they are a key part of a larger fixation I’ve had for over 15 years about work time versus personal time trends. Indeed, I obsessed about this subject more or less constantly during the nine years that I worked an office job, but I actually started keeping a folder of information and news clippings last year when I suddenly realized that I’m an accidental global expert on work verses personal time trends. Having lived in or travel extensively through the hardest working countries (US, UK, Romania, Japan) and least hardest working countries (Italy, France, Denmark) in the world, it turns out I can speak about this topic at great length, like I intend to do right now.

If you’re like 112.96% of Americans (estimated 2009), you probably don’t love your job enough to voluntarily make it the hands-down, number one priority in your life. So, why is it then that our jobs are seemingly more pivotal to and time-consuming in our daily lives than our hobbies, loved ones, sex and even basic elements vital for our survival like food and sleep?

Though we Americans are far from the hardest working people in the world, we certainly aren’t resting on our laurels. Perversely, despite studies and surveys unanimously showing our wishes for the opposite, we’ve created a masochistic environment where long hours are respected, hair-whitening responsibility and indispensability are revered and skipping vacation is rewarded – usually with more work.

You know what happens when you subject yourself to that kind of day-to-day rigor over a long period of time? You go batshit crazy, that’s what. Which probably explains why our population is so replete with chronic fatigue, paranoia, hypochondria, obesity, road rage, and murder. Though our unfettered access to guns, junk food and Fox News probably isn’t helping.

Further to the above, I found a recent Integra Survey of US workers that revealed some unsettling, though hardly surprising findings:

•    65% of workers said that workplace stress had caused them difficulties (and 10% said the difficulties had major effects).
•    62% routinely had work-related neck pain at the end of the day.
•    44% reported stressed-out eyes.
•    38% had pain in their hands.
•    34% reported difficulty sleeping because of work-related stress.
•    Nearly one in four workers has cried over workplace stress, and 19% have quit a job because of it.
•    Over half of workers say they frequently skip lunch because of job demands.
•    29% have yelled at co-workers because of job stress
•    42% say that yelling and verbal abuse are common
•    2% have actually struck someone at work.

People literally working themselves to death isn’t just for the Japanese anymore, where, incidentally, they actually coined the term, ‘karoshi‘, to describe the phenomenon. We aren’t quite the South Koreans, who only abolished the mandatory six-day work week in 2004, but we have a long way to go before we threaten the French, perennial contenders for Highest Overall Contentment worldwide, who have a nationally mandated 35-hour work week – which I hear they’re trying to shorten yet again. (Kudos.)

I’ve been speaking out, mostly to whoever was stuck next to me in the line at the cafeteria, about the ridiculous state of how over-work in the US is affecting our heath and lifestyles for ages. In fact, I remember the exact moment that I had this epiphany: my first day of work at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 1994. Barely a month after returning from my second Europe backpacking trip in two years, where I spent copious time in Spain, the Siesta Capital of the World, both my jaw and child-like innocence hit the floor upon seeing the Fed’s vacation allotment schedule. I was starting with two weeks, would earn a third week after I’d been there five years and a generous fourth week after 15 years. This schedule is roughly the same today. Meanwhile, as the Wise Bread blog post “America Is the No Vacation Nation” reports, an entry level job in Australia affords the lucky bastard seven weeks of vacation. That’s just plain cruel, man.

Americans enjoy less cumulative vacation days and public holidays (roughly 25 days annually) than Japan (35 days), Morocco (39 days) and Finland (44 days). And that’s if we choose to take all of our vacation days. As shown in the Expedia survey, “On average, Americans reported receiving 13 vacation days in 2009, one day less than the previous three years.” How, with all the recent dialogue, is this situation actually getting worse?

I’ll take a break for now, but I’m not done. Tune in next week for more ranting in a blog post that I’m tentatively calling “The Thankless Work of a Pioneering Slacker – the Leif Pettersen Story.”