When was the last time you took a vacation? How long did it last? These are among the important questions explored in the recent short film The Great Vacation Squeeze, written and directed by John de Graaf. De Graaf has explored the differences in vacation and leisure time between the US and Europe for years, and in 2002 he co-founded the organization Take Back Your Time “to point out the problems connected with overwork in America.”
Supported by Sierra Club Productions, this film is one of his latest projects that examines just how stark these differences are and hopes to inspire people to do something to change it. De Graaf believes that the idea of vacation and leisure is strongly intertwined with the Sierra Club’s mission statement.
“The Sierra Club's purpose is enjoying, exploring, and protecting the natural world, and it's hard to enjoy it or explore it when you don't have any time off. It also leaves you less likely to want to protect it,” he said. “As a member I think it important that the club not forget its commitment to enjoying and exploring nature.”
Which of these facts from the film will convince you it's about time for paid vacations?
Time to catch up. The US is the only wealthy country without paid vacation time, which may be an underlying cause of a whole host of issues, including stress and overwork. “Our lack of policy [mandating paid vacations] contributes to serious health problems, weakens family connections, and [reduces] the opportunity for all of us to get out in the natural world, especially children,” de Graaf said.
Strong ties. “It was John Muir, key founder of the Sierra Club, who, as I point out in the film, was the first American to advocate a paid vacation law, way back in 1876,” de Graaf said. Muir called for a law of rest that would give time off each year for people to reconnect with nature. The idea lived on in the early 20th century when President William Howard Taft suggested of a three-month long vacation for every worker.
So close, yet so far. During the Great Depression, the Labor Department proposed a two-week paid vacation law, but it failed due to business opposition. Still, two-week trips were common in America at this time, whereas they’ve now dwindled into near oblivion.
Practice what we preach. Seventy-three percent of Americans say vacations help recharge their batteries, but fewer actually take this time. Of all working Americans, 28% receive no paid vacation time and 24% get only one week or less.
Vacations are win-win. “They do wonders for us in so many ways, as every other country understands, and they are actually helpful to business productivity and creativity as well,” de Graaf said. On an individual level, vacations can be healing in that they give us relief from stressors of daily life. Time off also promotes reflection. “In idleness there is the opportunity for contemplation, there is the opportunity for soul-searching, and for seeing, for really truly, clearly seeing, what’s around us,” says Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson in the film.
Europeans have it better. On average, Europeans live longer and are less likely to suffer from chronic illness after age 50, even though they spend less on health care. Having long, paid vacation time may have something to do with this. It's known that taking breaks from work greatly reduces stress and even improves productivity.
It’s about justice. “Most low-income Americans never have the opportunity and don't even get paid vacations,” de Graaf said. Many believe that a law mandating paid vacations would eliminate this inequality and ultimately benefit all Americans.
If you’re interested in organizing a viewing with your community, school, or local Sierra Club chapter, you can reach de Graaf at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Image by David Fox, used with permission of John de Graaf
Jessica Zischke is a former editorial intern at Sierra. She is currently studying environmental studies at Dartmouth College. On campus she works as an editor of Dartbeat, the blog of the student-run newspaper The Dartmouth, and as the Sustainability Chair for her sorority, Alpha Xi Delta.