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More work, less vacation leaves workers grumpy


As a workplace coach, Mary Helms has often talked to executives afraid of vacationing for more than a long weekend.

"Somehow, workers are afraid, if they're not productive 100 percent of the time, their success will disappear," said Helms, based in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

In the United States, there is no law giving people the right to paid vacation, and an increasing number of people report feeling unable to get away. A May survey of 2,000 adults by the online-travel company Expedia.com found that at least 30 percent of workers will give vacation days back to the company.

"We seem to have a workaholic culture right now," said Mary Graham, a spokeswoman with the National Mental Health Association. "We're working long days, taking work home and keeping the cell phone on 24/7."

On average, the survey, conducted online by Harris Interactive with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, found that Americans will take 12.4 vacation days this year and give back three to the company, up from two last year. In all, Expedia.com estimates that American workers will return 415 million days.

As a result, psychologists and workplace consultants now talk about "workplace addiction," "vacation deprivation" and "leisure phobia."

With years of corporate downsizing, managers expecting fast-track promotions find few openings and distinguish themselves by working 80-hour weeks, said Al Mercatante, a counselor and career consultant. Such workers make themselves invaluable and refuse vacation, he said.

Other workers say there's simply too much to be done and it's hard to get away.

"In our society it's almost as if we're not busy, we don't have the right to exist," said Diane Fassel, author of "Working Ourselves to Death" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990). "Being a workaholic is an insidious addiction. Your employer rewards you for it, even if you're ruining your health and harming your closest relationships because you're seldom with your family."

In her view, becoming a workaholic is often more debilitating to the body than alcoholism. Typically, workaholism starts with rushing, overdoing, losing the ability to say no and forming an addiction to one's own adrenaline. This often leads to surges of energy followed by crashes, anxiety, poor sleep and emotional deadness.

"The addiction to adrenaline can mask physical illness," Fassel said. "The Japanese even have a name for middle-aged men and women who fall over from overwork and die -- 'karoshi.' "

Consultants and wellness experts including Terra Wellington of Phoenix say the American addiction to work is encouraged by an intense business focus on productivity. This focus reflects a common business philosophy that tells workers they're expected to do more, Wellington says.

American productivity remains a point of pride, said Laura Stack, a productivity consultant based in the Denver area. But efficiency has come at a high cost.

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