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Vacation as a Bioethical Issue

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

I have been on vacation. This is that mythical experience of leaving the everyday world, disappearing to another location, spending time learning/relaxing/experiencing/destressing, and then returning back to the real world. Unfortunately, few of us in the U.S. have jobs that offer such time and even fewer take advantage of these opportunities.

The United States has the least number of vacation days and holidays (in business-speak, “paid-time-off”) than any other industrialized nation.. U.S. law does not require employers to offer paid vacations, sick leave or holidays. We are also the only industrialized country without a national paid parental leave benefit.

We do generally get about 10 paid vacation days per year. When an American does have paid vacation, it averages about 2 weeks, far behind the requirmenets found in other industrialized countries. In most businesses, an employee can only carry over a certain number of vacation days from one year to the next. Anything over that limit that is not used is lost. Estimates hold that we gave away 169 million vacation days (unused) worth about $52.4 billion dollars. Those are dollars that our employers pocket.

Vacation time has many health benefits. Studies such as the Framingham study and the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial show that getting away from it all may decrease heart disease. People who take a break have lower rates of depression, less stress, and sharper mental acuity. Vacations build bonds between family and friends and increase productivity. (Yes, leaving the office can actually make you accomplish more).

The Organizations for Economic Co-Operation and Development shows that Americans work 1,789 hours per year. This not the highest number in the world (Mexico, South Korea, Greece, Chile, and Russia are the 5 highest). U.S. numbers have increased every year. Still, over 85% of Americans work more than 40 hours per week. In fact, according to the Gallup Poll, the average workweek for a full time, employed American is 47 hours.

When I got back from my trip many people asked if I went there for work. When I said, “No, for fun” they were surprised. This recurring conversation begs the question, why don’t we go away [for fun] more? A lot of it is fear. With the downsizing of the workforce as a result of the Great Recession, many people fear losing their jobs if they leave. If the company can get along while you spend 3 weeks in the South Pacific, then maybe you aren’t needed at all. If we take vacation, we fear that our companies will find they don’t need us. A second reason is that we save our vacation time: We may need it for an emergency, if a child or parent falls ill. Also consider that vacation days are a bank. When I left my last position I had enough days in my bank that I walked away with 6 weeks worth of salary.

One of the most often cited reasons for not going away is fear of coming back. While away, those average of 84 emails per day continue to file in (sadly, I did log in everyday to delete the spam and make sure I wasn’t needed for anything critical in the emails); in academics the requests by students to be added to a class, asking me to write a letter of reference, and asking for advice accumulates; and meeting minutes, committee requests and reports, and more piles up. Add in the number of missed meetings means it takes a while to get back up to speed after returning.

For example, in the two weeks that I went go overseas and the two weeks it took after for me to catch up (not to mention the last week when I was prepping for classes that started this week), I missed a lot in the world of bioethics and health policy:

I wouldn’t trade my time away—it allowed me to experience other cultures, to meet new people, and to use different parts of my mind. But it did require writing blogs in advance and setting them to release while I was away. I had to make sure my syllabus was posted on line in case students had questions in the month before school started, as well as making sure that all my administrative tasks were outsourced to other people for the duration. Coming back is sort of like being hit with a tidal wave, trying to catch up.

But I am fortunate. Most people in bioethics have positions in medical schools or agencies where they only get 2 to 3 weeks of vacation and like me when I worked in a med school, can’t take it. My teaching load was a solid week every 6 weeks—it’s hard to get away when you are either teaching, grading, and or preparing to teach, every week. Now that I am in a four-year university, teaching undergraduate students, I have the luxury of a summer break which gives me time for conferencing, prepping for the next year, writing, and yes, taking that all important but ever-so-rare vacation for fun.

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