Column – Permission to rest 

Published 5:25 pm Friday, September 1, 2023

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Labor Day is coming. On the first weekend in September, most Americans will gear up for a long weekend, anchored by a national holiday on Monday. Some will get away. The vast majority of others probably won’t. They’ll just enjoy a low-key staycation or spend time on Monday with family and friends.  

That particular holiday is an ironic one for we Americans to observe. For we pay homage on that day to resting from our labor. Yet our lives don’t indicate that we are quite as good at that as people in other parts of the world. 

An article published just last year cited some fresh data from the Expedia group, a travel-related organization. They found that on average, American workers take six less vacation days per year than the global average. 

We so glamorize work that many might be proud to read that statistic. They’d puff their collective chests out in recognition of hard-working Americans. Yet, the study done by Expedia found more. 59% of study participants felt vacation-deprived. That is, six-out-of-ten employees feel they do not take enough vacation days. 

72% of American workers reported feeling burned out. “Despite the nearly universal belief that regular vacations are critical to our health and wellbeing, the research shows we struggle to fully unplug from work,” said Christie Hudson, senior PR manager for Expedia.

Now, let me tell you how people where I’m from would have reacted to these kinds of stats. Some of them would draw in a breath and say, “These whiny people need to just be glad they have jobs. All this talk about burnout and not taking enough time off. People don’t want to work these days.” 

True, the labor shortages across so many sectors of our post-Covid economy bear some sympathy with that reaction. We all know the bank, the restaurant or other business that has cut back on its hours because they simply can’t find enough willing staff. 

But according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the U. S. is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee its workers any vacation time. According to the same source, even though some companies in our country do provide employees with paid time off, the average vacation leave here does not meet the minimum standards held in nineteen of the world’s richest countries.  

Here is where I should acknowledge that the non-profit I work for does in fact provide paid time off for employees. They bless us to get away some, and also provide for the fairly typical array of official or government recognized holidays. I am grateful. 

Being away from our work is vital to our productivity. Americans have famously perpetuated what sociologists and others might term “The Protestant Work Ethic.” A smidge less admirable than that moniker makes it sound, woven into our culture is a relative guilt-burden that leads us to glamorize work. 

Yet we need to be able to separate from our work. It is not unreasonable to expect that when your employees go home, they shouldn’t have to continue to field your work-related texts, calls and messages unless there is an emergency. The Bible’s famous “Golden Rule” might lead us to treat each other more fairly. 

If the mill constantly called you at home, and caused you to have to leave your family to come attend to something, you should recall how invasive that felt. Yes, you may have liked your job. You may have been grateful to be employed. Still, treating others as you would have preferred to be treated might be a healthy stance. 

All of us are replaceable. Or at least, historically we have been. Today’s labor market actually challenges that notion, as companies and organizations find out that replacing good employees sometimes is quite challenging. 

At the end of the day, none of us are so valuable that our workplace wouldn’t find a way quickly to do without us. Sacrificing your sanity and your family for work doesn’t seem like a smart bet.  

Labor Day doesn’t promote laziness. None of us wants to feel like our employees are unmotivated. But maybe we need to lighten up a little. At the end of the day, I think Labor Day instead reminds us that the elusive work-life balance might need our attention a little more often than we give it. 

As this first week of September unfolds, I bid you a safe and restful holiday. One that reminds you that if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. 

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.