Every day, one million workers in the US miss work due to stress or work-related mental health conditions.
The causes of burnout vary from worker to worker, but national policy also plays its part. Where workers in Europe often receive paid sick leave and between 20 and 30 days of paid holiday every year, workers in the US have no statutory right to paid holiday.
The comparison is illustrative. Research suggests that paid leave has a host of mental health benefits. So what sort of vacation policy should government encourage?
In a paper published in 2013, Terry Hartig at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, tried to establish how worker holidays affected national-level wellbeing.
He tracked the amount of antidepressants dispensed over a 13 year period and compared it to data on when people took their holiday leave during the year.
The correlation was clear: “the decline in SSRI dispensing associated with each additional vacationing worker became larger as the number of vacationing workers increased,” the paper concluded.
That holidays help people unwind is perhaps not surprising, but Hartig’s research also found that retired people and other out-of-work groups who weren’t taking holiday leave also reaped the benefits.
In short, generous holiday policy didn’t just benefit individual workers — it restored the people around them too. There’s a few reasons for that, according to Hartig. Generous holiday policy can allow people to fulfil their other duties to their families, friends and communities, whether as parents, community organisers or unpaid carers to relatives and neighbours.
And it gives workers the time to unwind and replenish the energy that work demands, and escape from the stresses of the workplace.
“A bad day at work where you argue with a coworker might disinhibit arguments at home, or that a person who is wiped out at work can have nothing to give to their domestic partner. Individual stress has implications for other people and so does the possibility for restoration,” he argued.
The amount of holiday workers receive is only one part of the puzzle, however.
Flexibility in precisely when that holiday can taken, and how much can be taken at once also mattered. Holidays that can be taken with friends and family may be more restorative than those taken alone for example. “It creates possibilities for people to organise their restoration together,” Hartig said.
The communal benefits of holiday leave mean that vacations shouldn’t be something decided on an individual basis by workers and their employers, Hartig argued, but guaranteed by law, with protection to ensure that leave can be taken when workers need it, not when employers decree.
Five years on from his findings, however, Hartig argued that vacation policies are becoming less not more progressive as the gig economy booms, offering workers flexible hours but scant legal protections or entitlements.
“With so many people in precarious employment, how are they going to get vacation benefits when they don’t have enough work to begin with?” he said, arguing that the implications of overwork and scarce free time go far beyond individual health concerns.
“We’re living in a splintered society. We need concepts like this that people can organise around, that can help them spend time together.”
Some countries have already taken promising steps to address the precariousness of new forms of employment.
In the UK, government last year guaranteed equal pay for equal work by gig workers, statutory sick leave and legal recognition as employees, not contractors.
But when the US lags behind most of Europe on protections for full-time employees, let alone casual workers, holidays may remain a privilege of the lucky few for a long time yet. — Edward Siddons
(Picture credit: Pixabay)