It's as American as apple pie: Humblebragging about how much you have worked in the last week, month or year is a sport that many of us engage in, mostly for ourselves, and sometimes for kudos (or maybe to finagle a free massage) from our friends or family. Americans work more hours than any other developed country, and this obsessive quest to do just a bit more every year has only been compounded by long-term factors like the lack of real pay increases, even as the cost of living grows, and shorter-term problems like the current recession we are slowly crawling out from under.
It would seem, from the way we revere hard work, that it is all upside, with lots of reward and no risk. But health researchers have been noting for years the correlation between work hours and physical and mental illness, and in some cases have shown direct connections.
Dr. Michael Sleeth, a former emergency room physician and author of "24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life," thinks we are — literally — working ourselves to death. He told CNN, "We go 24/7 now, and I think it's having health consequences. I think more and more, there's a consensus that it leads to depression and anxiety."
The doctor (who personally writes from a Christian POV) points out that throughout human history, people worked hard, but had built-in rest days, so as hard as you worked, there was a specified day that one had to relax — and usually most of your community was resting too (which does help one feel like less of a slacker; there's nothing worse than taking a day off, only to be subsumed by guilt at everyone else's obviously productive days). For Christian folk it was Sundays, for Jewish families it was from sundown Friday until sundown on Saturday; and those kinds of specific rest times, which are generally codified in the documents or rules handed down over generations, can be found in most cultures. But these days, even for those people who identify as Christian or Jewish (or any other religion or culture), the world goes 24-7, and we are expected to keep up; only the most dedicated people I know (some religious, some who have family or personal rules about rest time) take time off on a specified, regular basis.
That time you take to rest and relax, says Sleeth, is incredibly important, due to how our bodies handle the regular stresses of working. "When we're constantly going, we pour out chemicals to try to meet those stresses. We have short-term stress hormones like adrenaline, and longer-term hormones like the steroids that we pour out. Those chemicals constantly being 'on' are bad for us, and they lead to anxiety and depression and to, I think, diabetes and being obese," says Sleeth. Whatever your religion or spiritual persuasion (or, like me, none at all), taking time off gives your body a chance to repair and reset.
With rare exception, I take from Friday afternoon through Sunday morning off; for me, nothing much gets done late Friday and Saturdays as I'm too burnt out from the week and it seems pointless to try. By early Sunday afternoon, I'm excited to start work again. I've found that around 4 p.m. on Friday, my brain just shuts down, so for me, it is a question of being smart about my productivity. There's no point in 'working' if I'm not getting anything done. This may have begun in my childhood, because although I was raised Episcopalian, Sunday afternoons post-church were always for playing with friends and doing yardwork, getting ready for the week, and finishing homework. Friday after school through Saturday night has always been my "me" time. I stick to this pretty faithfully, even though I've been an atheist for more than two decades. And so it shall continue — though because I'm not part of a larger group that chooses this time to be "off," I have to monitor that I do check out myself.
Do you take time off regularly? If not, do you think it might be a good idea to start?
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