August would traditionally be high season for vacationers, but fewer and fewer of us are doing that these days; in fact, according to data reported in The New York Times earlier this year, Americans are taking less time off than at any point in the past 50 years. And this isn’t just because we aren’t be giving the chance In responses to an online questionnaire most Americans reported that do not use all of their paid vacation. Moreover, even those who do leave work don’t really detach, bringing along computers, cell phones and constantly checking email.
“Project: Time Off,” a group promoted by the travel industry, says that over the past year American workers had reached a record low for taking days off: a mere 16 days a year. (Fifteen years ago, we were averaging about 20 vacation days per year). The group thus identified a new modern archetype: the work martyr, a person whose family and friends know that work will often disrupt their personal and social life. Such martyrdom comes at a price though: this person reports to being unhappy about their situation in over 30% of responses.
Of course it’s easy to criticize workaholics, but the condition is not just increasingly common among high performers; many others in mid-level and low-income jobs fear losing their positions if they take time off. So what can we do to decompress?
Jeanette Bronee, who abandoned her high-stress fashion executive career a decade ago started a health consultancy, Path for Life. Bronee explains that she tries to get people to see that their never-unplugged lives are not only compromising their health, but also making them less productive than they believe they are.
Bronee has created a 9-step system for executives to learn to decompress, which generally involved taking time away from devices that connect them to their jobs. Unfortunately, Bronee notes that the majority of her clients don’t approach her seeking to make changes until after developing some severe health problem. Her initial strategy focuses on nutrition and exercise. She also stresses mindfulness, though — a state that many type-A workers tend to shun.
“A lot of people have a hard time thinking about mindfulness because they think of sitting on a pillow for 30 minutes,” she said. “But mindfulness is something we can practice in daily ways. Mindfulness is a lot about catching all those thoughts that cause us stress.”
The health impacts of working round the clock can be devastating. A report last month showed that workers clocking over 55 hours a week have a 33% higher chance of a stroke and 13% greater risk of heart disease.
Yet taking off for a weeklong vacation is easier said than done.
Mr. Hitt explained that when he first became CEO of his company, he would get up at 4 a.m. during vacation itself to call associates in Germany and New York, logging hours before anyone else in Maui was awake. Now, he said, he has a great team and is comfortable relaxing.
Of course finding ways to decompress during the regular workweek may be more practical, if no less challenging. Several forms of meditation and yoga have become popular. But we still have to find the time to squeeze them into our schedules.
Exercise and meditation demand full concentration for a good hour or so. But some have found a way to experience a quick “jolt” of calm. This is what Symrise, a fragrance company, aims to provide. Ironically, the company was founded by a president in fine fragrances industry, who pushed to have a sealed, scent-free space in their headquarters for the noses that design their high-end scents.
“It’s a place to refresh when you smell all day long,” she said. “The nose goes directly to the brain. How do you wipe it clean? You go in there and you calm down. We smell for a living.”
Most workers only stay in the room for about 10 to 15 minutes to refresh. And this was certainly preferable to the old solution for workers, who walked out into a smelly Manhattan street to escape their perfumed-indoor spaces.
Anastasia Garvey, who works as an actress and model, doesn’t have the same type of “office pressure,” but she is continually on edge wondering if she’ll get a certain job or not. She follows a regimen involving meditation, acupuncture, cupping therapy, and most recently cryotherapy — a procedure where individuals are blasted by air cooled to negative 260 degrees.
The sessions last a mere 3 minutes, plus time to warm up again on a stationary bike. You’d think this would make them more affordable than other spa treatments, but the sessions cost $90 each. Garvey uses the service three times a week.
“The first time I did it I couldn’t remember my name,” she said. “You’re in a freezer. You’re so cold you can’t think of anything.”
This may be a pretty extreme way to forget about your troubles and responsibilities. But for some, the demands of today’s work-regimen leave time for nothing more than a “quick fix.”