Vacations essential to maintain physical, mental health

By Lauren Kelly

Columbia students looked forward to winter vacation so much during the last week of the Fall 2009 semester that their anticipation was almost palpable. As the week progressed, you could almost see the anxiety of finals fading away and the excitement for winter break brewing. After 15 weeks of tireless work, a five-week vacation was more than welcome.

Vacations and rest are incredibly important for students and workers of all kinds. Time away from the daily stresses and demands of the workplace allow people to decompress, relax and recharge their minds and bodies.

Columbia, along with many other colleges, has a five-week-long winter vacation and approximately 15 weeks off in the summer months.

Although college students get a lot of time off each year, people with full-time jobs aren’t so lucky. In the United States, workers are not legally required to take time off. According to a 2005 study by the Economic Policy Institute, workers who are employed at the same job for one year receive, on average, nine days of paid vacation time. As the length of their tenure increases, they gain more vacation time, and only after an average of 25 years does a worker reach 20 days of paid vacation.

In contrast, many European countries legally require workers to take several weeks of paid vacation leave each year. The United States does not have any statute that requires this and instead leaves it up to the individual employer to negotiate vacation time. Countries such as Austria, Denmark, France and Sweden demand that workers take five work weeks, or 25 days, paid vacation each year. Most other European countries require workers to take four weeks, or 20 days leave.

Overworked employees are more likely to have negative job performance and health problems. Taking time off prevents people from becoming physically exhausted or burning out mentally.

According to a study by researchers at the State University of New York, men who take vacations every year reduced their overall risk of death that year by about 20 percent, and their risk of death from heart disease reduced by as much as 30 percent. Stress is thought to be a leading factor in developing cardiovascular problems.

Many studies have shown the connection between overworking and health problems. In Japan, over the past few decades there has been a surge in sudden deaths reported due to heart attacks and strokes among working men in their 40s and 50s who had no serious health problems prior to their death. The syndrome is known as “karoshi,” which literally translates to “death from overwork.”

A karoshi death made the news in 2008 when the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare awarded damages to the widow of a 45-year-old chief engineer at Toyota who averaged 114 hours of overtime per month in the six months before he died of heart failure, according to a July 2008 Washington Post article.

The labor bureau now publishes statistics on karoshi deaths in Japan and routinely awards damages to relatives of

the deceased.

Taking time away from the stressful daily grind is important, and the United States government should rethink its stance on mandatory paid vacation time. Even the president takes occasional holidays to places like Camp David, Martha’s Vineyard or Hawaii.

The United States should consider creating a federal statute that forces employers to give their workers more paid time off. It’s not realistic at this point to require as much as some European countries, especially in the current economic climate, but any government recognition would be an improvement. This measure is necessary for the health and well-being of our country’s work force.