It's Labor Day weekend again. With the days long and the skies blue, Americans everywhere load up the family car, fire up the GPS and gripe about how they don't get enough vacation time. For once, our whining is justified. Each year we work more and enjoy fewer vacation days than most other industrialized nations.
Europeans, by contrast, take their vacations very seriously, as anyone who has ever tried to reach someone in Paris in August knows. All European workers are entitled to at least four weeks' vacation. In some countries, like Finland, six weeks is the norm. Europe has brought us plenty of bad ideas -- fascism and man-purses spring to mind -- but les vacances is not one of them.
What about American exceptionalism, you say? Yes, we are exceptional -- exceptionally bad at relaxing, even when we know it is good for us. The United States, along with Nepal, Suriname and Guyana, is one of only a handful of nations whose workers are not legally guaranteed a minimum number of days off. But our vacation deficit is largely self-inflicted. A recent survey by Expedia, the travel booking company, found that only 38 percent of Americans use all of their allotted vacation time, leaving an average of three days on the table each year.
This endless toil comes at a price. Time spent at the office -- or, worse, commuting -- is time not available for the activities that researchers consistently find make us happier: communing with family and friends, exercising, enjoying a fine meal, listening to music. A nose permanently yoked to the grindstone is a nose that is unable to smell the flowers or anything else.
So why this stubborn reluctance to take a break? The knee-jerk explanation is that old standby, the Protestant work ethic. Yes, we are a nation of worker bees, and proud of it, but that tells only part of the story. There's something else going on: fear. In a down economy, no one wants to look like a slacker. Companies don't need to tighten vacation policies to save a few bucks. Workers are doing it for them.
Then there is the hassle factor. Gas prices are high, traffic is awful and flying these days is certainly no holiday.
Even when we do take days off, we lug our BlackBerrys and laptops to the beach, and still must confront a mountain of unread emails upon our return. In the Digital Age, we need more, not less, vacation time, if for no other reason than to overcome what one Dutch researcher calls "leisure sickness," the inability to relax during the first few days of a vacation.
I asked a friend about this and was met with a blank stare. She couldn't remember the last vacation she took. She hoards her vacation time the way others collect old newspapers. She feels better knowing the days are there, she told me, even if she doesn't use them. I suppose that brings her some degree of pleasure, but I can't imagine it's the same pleasure derived from spending a month on the French Riviera.
We Americans are deeply conflicted. We are the land of Big Fun: Disney World, Hollywood and road trips. Yet we view those who take extended vacations as suspect and somehow unpatriotic. We chide our presidents for taking too many days off, as if it were better to have a bleary-eyed commander in chief in the White House.
It wasn't always this way. In 1910, President Taft, no bleeding-heart liberal by any means, suggested that all workers get two to three months' vacation each year. "The American people have found out that there is such a thing as exhausting the capital of one's health and constitution," Taft said.
Indeed, you'd think that vacations are something all Americans could get behind. They're pro-family, they're good for our health (those who take regular vacations are less likely to die of heart disease) and, studies have found, they increase worker productivity and creativity.
That is exactly the argument the tiny but hard-working vacation lobby -- yes, there is one -- has made to members of Congress. It hasn't exactly been a resounding success. "You would have had the idea that we were calling for the end of the Western civilization," says John de Graaf, founder of Take Back Your Time, an advocacy group fighting for a law that would require employers to give workers a minimum number of paid vacation days.
I sympathize with de Graaf but fear he is doomed to fail. Congress can't get the nation's financial house in order. It's not about to mandate vacation time. No, this is something best left to the private sector.
If companies are serious about keeping their employees fresh, they should require workers either to use their allotted vacation time or face a financial penalty. This is not as absurd as it seems. After all, companies require that employees show up at a certain time, and meet certain productivity goals. Why not require that they recharge their batteries? That would not be an act of charity, but a smart business move. A rested worker is a more productive worker.
Eric Weiner is the author of, most recently, "Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine," to be published in December.