Why It’s Essential for Workaholics to Take Vacations

Imagine this scenario:  You are invited by a friend to spend a week in Jamaica at an all-inclusive resort. All you need to do is pay the airfare. Your immediate response is, “Of course, I will go. Thank you very much.” Your secondary and quite visceral reaction is, “That means I might have to take time off of work.” Just the thought sends your chattering monkey mind into overdrive. “What if I look like a slacker?” “What if I really need the time off for something more important?” “What if something happens while I am away that I need to take care of?” You tell your supervisor that you will be on vacation, but not to worry, that you will still write articles for publication, since you are a consummate multitasker. She then informs you that you have accrued far more vacation time than could be used in that seven-day period and advises you to take those hours and do what most people do on holiday. Relax and rejuvenate. Power down and turn off electronics. Revel in the opportunity to “get away from it all.” That is, unless they identify as a workaholic. Bryan E. Robinson, PhD, author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, clarifies that having a solid work ethic and being a workaholic are not synonymous. Like any behavior, when taken to an extreme or done to the detriment of other aspects of one’s life, it runs the risk of blossoming into an addiction. He says that, “The preoccupation with work is really at the core of what workaholism is.”  It is considered the only desirable addiction and one that heaps praise on the person who is able to keep up the pace in spite of the genuine need for rest. It carries with it the entrenched belief that our value is based on performance and that we are only as good as our most recent success. “Climb higher. Strive for more,” is what the inner slave driver exhorts. One problem is that the air gets increasingly thin as we ascend and we need to stop and regroup.

An African Story

“There was once an American traveler who planned a safari to Africa. He was that typical Type A American tourist, who many of us may be and who I admittedly am when I travel. We do our research about this travel destination and we have a timetable, maps and a clear agenda of the things we need to see and do. Some local people had even been hired to carry some of the traveler’s supplies as they trekked throughout the land — it was that level of planning. On the first morning, they all woke up early and traveled fast and covered a great distance. The second morning was the same — woke up early, traveled fast, and traveled far. Third morning, same thing. But on the fourth morning, the local hired help refused to move. Instead, they sat by a tree in the shade well into the morning. The American traveler became incensed and irate and said to his translator, “This is a waste of valuable time. Can someone tell me what’s going on here?” The translator looked at him and calmly answered, “They’re waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.” — Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities: Gifts for Living with Passion, Purpose and Grace

Workaholism as a Worldwide Concern

Following are the percentages of workers from various countries who put in more than 48 hours a week, which is considered excessive by the International Labor Organization.

  • Japan: 39.3%
  • United Kingdom: 25.7%
  • Israel: 25.5%
  • New Zealand: 23.6%
  • Australia: 20.4%
  • Switzerland: 19.2%
  • United States: 18.1%

Japan has a name for the inevitable outcome of such a paradigm. It is called karoshi — translated as “death by over work.”  Young, seemingly healthy professionals are dying unexpectedly as a result of putting in long hours and not allowing for restorative sleep and vacation time. Conversely, a study by the State University of New York at Oswego that surveyed 12,000 men between ages 35 and 57 found that men who go on one vacation per year diminish the danger of death by 20%. I am acknowledging that I am a workaholic who rides a fine line between the two states of a responsible and strong work ethic and equally compelling Type A overindulgence in purposeful activity. I come by my tendencies naturally, since my father was a high-functioning workaholic who modeled unhealthy work habits. He would do his job, volunteer, exercise and have time to sustain a relationship with my mother, as well as raise my sister and me. This at the expense of sleep, and at times, health. I simply thought he was adept at doing it all and I wanted to be viewed in that light as well. That was what triggered the gut-twisting reaction when offered the first tropical vacation in over a decade and a half. Another factor is that I had been accustomed to storing up PTO (paid time off) at previous jobs in order to use it to provide care for my aging parents when they lived in Florida. Although I would jet down to sunny climes to see them, it was not a true travel adventure. During one visit to my mother’s hospital room a year before she passed, she had to insist that I go to the beach. She told me, “I don’t want to see you for a few hours,” as she shooed me out of her room.  The next thing I knew, I was reluctantly lying on a towel on Hollywood Beach, counting the minutes until I could legitimately return to her bedside.

Meanwhile Back in Jamaica

It took a few days of lying on a lounge chair at the beach and pool, floating on a mat atop gently lapping waves, walking on the sand and taking naps before I got acclimated to the routine. The most challenging aspect of the trip was allowing people to take care of me. Meals were served that five star chefs had prepared. I didn’t need to clear the table at even the most casual of places, despite an urge to do so. All I had to do was ask for something and there it was. My bed was made by someone else, fresh towels were placed out each day and I was greeted with the question, “Can I do something for you?” several times a day. I was reminded that I had earned that type of treatment and that I ought to revel in it. Still, a sense of guilt clung to me, like the sand that needed to be washed off in the shower. I discovered that even though I heeded my supervisor’s advice and didn’t write articles, I still had creative ideas percolating in my otherwise overstimulated mind. It was as if the garden was fertile and awaiting the planting of seeds. The Benefits of Taking a Vacation

  • Reduction of stress
  • More vacation time equals less sick time
  • It increases a sense of well-being in anticipation
  • The memories remain long after the suitcase is back in the closet
  • Being in a new environment stimulates creative flow
  • Learning about other cultures
  • Returning to work refreshed
  • Making new friends
  • Opening to serendipity
  • Doing what you want to do, not just what you have to do
  • It allows for emotional flexibility as things don’t always go as desired or planned
  • Recognizing that the planet doesn’t stop spinning on its axis if you take a break

After this restorative time away, I can say that my soul has indeed caught up with my body. For those in need of the equivalent of sober support in the face of workaholism, there is the 12-step group Workaholics Anonymous. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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