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All work and no play

No_Vacation_Nation_RevisiHow is it that the Austrians consume more calories a day on average than we do (a whopping 3,784 calories – the world’s leader, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development statistics), eat a meat-heavy, bread-heavy, vegetable-light diet, smoke at almost two-and-and-half times the rate as we do … and are healthier – with less than half the obesity rate, half the heart disease deaths and half the rate of diabetes.

It’s not a “mystery.” It’s not even a “paradox” — although that was the title of my post on this subject last week. It’s just complicated. It is, as I suggested in the previous post, that Austrians (and French and Italians and others in countries we might compare ourselves to) live very different lives than we do.

One big difference I noted was our deeply embedded and pervasive car culture, which means we drive everywhere (instead of walk or bike). We drive through drive-throughs. We eat in the car. I asked readers, especially my Austrian friends, to weigh in (pun intended) with other ideas about differences. Then I investigated these, focusing on proven connections to health issues. Here’s one (courtesy of my friend Stefan Binder, an Austrian journalist) that really struck me:

Vacation – or lack thereof.

American workers get the least mandated, paid vacation time in the world. Zero, in fact. (Employers in the US don’t have to give their staff any paid leave – although many are paid for the 10 national holidays.) Workers in other countries enjoy as many as 40 days off a year. Austrians get 38 paid leave and national holiday days. And, get this, full-time employees in America, when given vacation time, take only half of their eligible days, and more than 60 percent report working while on vacation. (I cannot remember a vacation during which I did not work.)

The health effects of such behavior can be considerable.

The landmark Framingham Heart Study – the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular disease – revealed that men who didn’t take a vacation for several years were 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks compared to men who did take time off. And women who took a vacation only once every six years or less were almost 8 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack compared to women who vacationed at least twice a year.

Lack of vacation has also been linked to higher blood pressure, bigger waistlines and increased incidence of depression.

It is also worth noting that Austrians put in shorter work weeks (from 3-8 hours shorter) than we do. So do workers in the U.K, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, Canada, the Czech Republic, Slovenia…I could go on.

It’s easy to see how more work can translate into other unhealthy behaviors: more stress, more stress (or on the run, or take-out because I’m too tired to cook) eating, more time sitting in a chair, less sleep, less family time.

On your next vacation day, think about this. I will. When I’m not working.

5 comments

1 Kim { 04.27.16 at 8:01 pm }

Interesting and informative post. Lots of quantitative things that could be used in a model.

2 Bettina { 04.28.16 at 12:23 am }

I just moved from Vienna to NYC this year, and I experienced that work has a totally different value in the US (or at least in NYC). People seem to work all the time, even on the weekends, and it’s normal for them. Working on Sundays, for example, is highly uncommon in Europe, and if you (have) to, you of course get an other day off that week. And yes, nobody I met here can believe it when I tell about my 6 weeks of vacations per year, and that we are required to use that up within 3 years (otherwise the company has to pay it, which they usually prefer not to). In terms of food, I think the big difference is that there are so many hidden calories in the food that’s being sold in the US: Why would you add sugar to bred or apple juice? And EVERYTHING is bigger, and if it’s offered in a smaller version, it’s often even more expensive than the bigger one. And yes, take-out is much bigger in the US, and so is processed food. When I had friends for dinner over and told them I made the vegetable broth myself they were astonished, even the cook I used to live with bought the ready-made-one…) Also, it’s hard for me to believe that everyone in Austria eats that much meat…and unfortunately, not everyone rides the bike or walks to work in Vienna, but yes, public transport is big – but so is it in New York City. And did you hear that the life expectation for women in the US has dropped for the first time? They say it’s due to suicide, drugs and alcohol…and I bet this is stress-related, too… http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/20/474884894/life-expectancy-drops-for-white-women-increases-for-black-men

3 Lauren { 04.28.16 at 12:37 am }

I mentioned in the post before this one that I was the ONLY person in my carriage on the Vienna-Salzburg train who was working on a laptop. People were talking, reading books, looking out the window. Why was I working? As I mentioned in this post, I truly cannot remember a vacation during which I did not also work. I am really going to think about this. About portion size: I know you are right, Bettina, and I wanted to write about this, but good data are hard to find. Oh, and P.S. I make all my broths and soups from scratch!

4 Ruth { 04.28.16 at 4:55 pm }

When we talk about sleep in my intro psych course, I use the vacation info if I have time (which I did not have when we covered it today, sadly). I also use info and graphics from: https://www.takebackyourtime.org/ and talk a bit about Take Back Your Time Day.

5 Lauren { 04.29.16 at 3:01 am }

Thanks for this, Ruth. Please, everyone, take a look at https://www.takebackyourtime.org!

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