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Ease up on work, food, expert warns

BY CAITLIN LOMBARDO | APRIL 14, 2009 7:40 AM

Two silent killers have crept their way into the American culture — work exhaustion and over-consumption.

John de Graaf, who lectured at the UI Monday night, speaks for over-worked employees and educates about the dangers of over-consumption.

De Graaf, a filmmaker and advocate, also cowrote Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a best-selling book describing over-consumption and over-working.

“We can only afford one week of paid vacation time,” he said. “The average vacation time is two weeks, and half of Americans get a week or less.”

His lecture, “Time and Sustainability,” focused on the tendency of American workers and employers to shy away from vacation time and Americans’ need to compensate for over-production and over-consumption.



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“We need to think about not producing more and more just because we can,” de Graaf said. “If productivity increases we have to consume more, otherwise people get laid off, people lose their jobs.”

He cited America’s lack of legal enforcement as a large reason why Americans suffer. In European countries, the minimum amount of paid vacation time citizens receive is four weeks by law, he said.

“There are only four countries in the entire world where mothers do not receive paid time off to take care of a new baby by law,” de Graaf said: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia, and the United States.

More people in the office working longer is also a problem, UI leisure-studies Professor Ben Hunnicutt said.

“We’re working five weeks longer than we did in 1976, and retirement is going south,” he said. “ More people are coming into the work force and staying longer.”

Of the many benefits that can be derived from American businesses reforming their work schedules, one is healthier workers, de Graaf said.

The United States spends $2.3 trillion on health care yearly — yet, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, the country ranked 46 in life expectancy in 200.

“European Union countries work 300 hours fewer than we do,” de Graaf said. “A guy working a minimum-wage job can’t afford to take sick days so he comes to work, sniffles or not, and sneezes on your burger, and then you get sick.”

Another benefit of a shorter work week is the potential for saved energy. Time spent outdoors and away from computers and other high-energy appliances aids in saving the environment, he said.
“The average American’s ecological footprint is 25 acres,” he said. “If we divide up the land, there are only five acres for every person.”

De Graaf is also the executive director of a North American initiative to fight time poverty, or working excessive amounts and over-scheduling. The group is helping push a bill through Congress that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act, essentially helping Americans protect their vacation time and allow for pro-rata, or proportionate, vacations as well.

“Americans don’t seem very happy, they’ve lost connection with nature, and they don’t get out very often,” said Liz Christiansen, the director of the UI Office of Sustainability. “We have to look at what makes us fulfilled and what makes us satisfied.”


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