I remember being young and diving into my first career head first. I promised myself I would be the very best in the business—not good, not promising, definitely not simply “acceptable,” but the best. I challenged myself, I studied, I worked unpaid overtime, and I quickly became very good at my job, some would even say indispensable. Through missed birthdays with my family and cancelled dinner plans with friends, they were understanding of my ambition but I could tell they missed me. Despite the guilt, I was still very proud of my bosses' and co-workers' reactions to my progress.
Day after day wore on, grinding away at who I truly was. I felt like time was just slipping away. Days turned into months, months turned into years. I forgot how old my only nephew was, I could count the last time I saw my parents in units of months, I didn’t even know where my suitcase was. I didn’t realize how in my effort to remain indispensable, I was actually becoming less of what anyone needed from me.
It didn’t really hit me how bad it had become, until I got an infection that laid me up for about a week. I was miserable, in pain, and angry that my body had betrayed me. I had no choice; I had to take my vacation time.
As it turns out, all work and no play don’t just make Jack dull; it makes him sick, accident prone, and less productive at work. Overwork has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. It has become such a widespread problem that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created a program called National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) whose goal is to study the effects of stress on worker health and offer suggestions to employers based on their findings.
Workplace stress has been linked to high blood pressure, insomnia, digestive problems, change in sex drive, headaches, muscle aches, weakened immune system… the list goes on. It seems scientists are discovering new things that link to stress every day. I’ve heard it said that “stress is the new smoking at the doctor’s office”.
And this information isn’t new. We’ve been hearing this for years. However, the average American has approximately 9.2 unused vacation days at the end of the year. It seems like American workers still treat taking personal time like the boogeyman. According to U.S. Travel Association survey, most workers interviewed said, “they weren’t exactly excited to see the pile of work waiting for them when they return… These people suffer from what the researchers called a ‘martyr’ complex, believing that they’re the only ones who can do their jobs.” The idea that 'an employee who treats their personal time as precious is associated to laziness' is so ingrained in American culture that paid time off is considered an extra benefit in today’s job marketplace.
The good news is, you don’t need a week in the Caribbean or an Alaskan cruise every year to get your groove back. NIOSH suggests that you can get many benefits by taking up a hobby that stimulates your mind, especially if it is contradictory to your job. I know an IT guy who took up axe throwing; I know a poker dealer that took up skydiving and yoga. I was in business management when I took cooking classes and also learned how to swing dance. Hiking, bird watching, fishing, guitar lessons, community volunteerism… all of these things are challenging enough to get your head out of the office and engage you in ways that you don’t normally get.
Sometimes, though, you have to force yourself to take this time and that’s okay. Just remember, you need this time like you need food, water, and air. In the quest to be useful, overworking makes us useless, and that is not sustainable—believe me.
And, by the way, my nephew is 12.