By the time “Hump Day” finally arrives, you’re already weak at the knees with anticipation for that precious two-day holiday that never seems to come quick enough. Hands down, no other single concept of modern life posses the legendary influence of Saturday and Sunday. Like mythical beasts, the stories of the two-day weekend experience and the influence of its healing powers are such that can be felt in the early morning hours of Monday.
But that middle-week high isn’t just some made-up cultural phenomenon used to grease the wheels of workplace conversation; it’s something you can actually feel. It’s magical really. There’s an electricity that circulates around the office, which can only be described as being on par with finding out that Hogwarts is a real school. You’ve never been to England, you were always a C class student, and from the stories coming out of that place you’re likley to be killed within your first 20-minutes there. But none of that matters. You’re going to Hogwarts, and you’re hitting that sh*t hard.
Wednesday is a mini miracle all by itself, akin to that of the night before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, as a kid, you got presents in my house; On Wednesday night as an adult, same thing—except the present is a large beer. But even before Hump Day beers, the office fanfares of Wednesday are sung all day long by the most dedicated of weekenders—which pretty much means everybody.
“Oh that fax didn’t go through? Who cares, it’s Hump Day.”
“Oh, you say you didn’t get to that phone call today? Hump Day.”
Wednesday comes with state of mind that resembles the rough—but effective—mantra of “f*ck it”. There’s no stopping it: when the middle of the week hits your mind has already begun to slip into “weekend mode”. And it’s all downhill from there, baby.
Finally, it happens. The weekend arrives. And then, suddenly, you’re faced with another far-too-common phenomenon associated with the love of Saturday and Sunday: you wake up and it’s Monday. Where the hell did the weekend go? And more importantly, where is the relief? Despite your best efforts to soak in the relaxation promised by the unspoken pact of time away from work, you’re still exhausted. You spend a few minutes contemplating what went wrong, and perhaps, kicking yourself over not having taken that afternoon nap you swore you would, but it’s all in vain. The time is lost and it’s back to work.
So what’s going on? Why does it seem that two days a week just isn’t enough? Is the idea that people deserve longer breaks from work reflective of some spoiled attitude born from laziness, or is there some validity to the claim that less time working is an issue to be taken seriously for debate? The answer is the latter. You’re weekend doesn’t feel like enough because it isn’t. However, the mystery of the “lost weekend” isn’t just about not having enough time. It’s about not having enough continuous, uninterrupted stretches of time.
Time Off Becomes Time Spent On Obligations
Think about your average weekend. If you’re like most people who work a moderately demanding job, you probably find yourself doing the majority of your errands during the weekend. This means that a large portion of what little time is spent away from work is spent on tending to our basic needs. Often times chores like laundry, house cleaning, food shopping, auto repair, and other tasks of necessity are done during days off from work. Factor in time spent sleeping and the portion of real time spent for leisure—meaning, time used purely for relaxation and pleasure—is somewhere inside of a few hours a week.
In fact, one study done in 2008, told the story of dwindling American leisure time that had dropped nearly 20%, from 20 hours in 2007, to a mere 16 in 2008. That means that out of an entire week of work and other obligations, the average person has less than a full day to relax and do what they wish.
It Takes Time To Wind Down
One important thing I’ve noticed over the weekend is how much more relaxed I feel on Sunday. It’s not until Sunday that I begin to really decompress and feel detached from the work week. It takes about a day and a half to settle into a mindset that reduces stress. And then, right when I begin to feel relaxed and comfortable, Sunday is gone and the whole work week starts all over again.
The truth is, like most things, true relaxation takes time; it takes time to really detach from the stress of work-related tasks. The implication here is that if people are looking to achieve real life-work balance, two days off isn’t going to cut it. Imagine, instead, if you were able to experience the same amount of time away from work as you spend working. A 50/50 deal would be a pretty sweet deal. The truth of the matter is that just because you aren’t at work, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily experiencing true detachment from work that allows relaxation to be effective. Effective time away from work isn’t only about being away from the office, it’s about the experience of long uninterrupted blocks of time.
Interruptions Kill Efficacy
In one article I was reading they identified workplace interruptions as a key source of why people felt an 8-hour workday wasn’t enough time to get their work done. People complained that their workday had very few windows of uninterrupted work time and that most people experienced one interruption every 8 minutes. Thats 50-60 interruptions in one working day.
The other side of that coin revealed that being distracted caused workers to expend more time “refocusing” on their task before entering stages of productivity again. More importantly, the longer the interruption was, the longer it took workers to get focused again. This means that not only are interruptions bad for work flow, they decrease the overall efficacy of work done in general.
Now apply this same logic to time away from work. Without long, continuous blocks of time spent not working, relaxation cannot be truly effective. In this case, two days—Saturday and Sunday—is not a sufficiently long enough block of time to allow for the kind of decompression necessary to relieve stress. Because, just as we start to wind down from the stressful demands of the workweek, we’ve got to get up and work for five days straight again.
Okay, so the obvious answer to the two-day weekend is a lengthy vacation, right? Well, maybe if you lived in Europe, or Japan, or any other developed country that isn’t the United States.
Unlike every country in the European Union, U.S. law does not mandate that workers have paid time off. In fact, it is completely lawful for a company to have employees work 365 days a year, 7 days a week. Contrastingly, many European countries require employers to provide workers with at least 4 weeks paid vacation a year. To me, as an American worker, that’s insane. Growing up in the U.S., I was indoctrinated into a culture that made it quite clear that vacation is extremely limited. From my perspective, vacation time has always been seen as something difficult to take, and sometimes even burdensome. I worry about the work I leave behind for others and if it’s okay to take more vacation time later, even if I have the days.
It was only a few years ago, while working in Japan, that I learned how insane U.S. work culture really is. Japan, a nation notorious for having a strict work-culture built upon long hours and dedication, mandates that workers have at least 10 vacation days a year. Austria, Germany, and France are among the top countries who provide the most vacation days for their workforce, between 25-30 days a year. The average worker in the U.S. will get a meager 13 days a year, which is not protected by law.
Since November of last year, I began working for a prominent hospital at a job I really enjoy. This week marks the first vacation I’ve taken since beginning that job nearly 10 months ago. Counting the weekends my time off is attached to, I managed to squeeze 10 consecutive days away from the office. I can honestly tell you that only now, on day five, am I beginning to feel the relaxing effects of time spent away from work.
The Bottom Line
Not being at work doesn’t necessarily mean we’re experiencing meaningful relaxation time. The end result of any time investment is greatly improved by the amount of time invested. More importantly, in the context of both work and time away from work, continuous, uninterrupted blocks of time are most effective. Like sleeping through the night, resting is most effective when it goes uninterrupted. Two days of rest interrupted by five days of work is not an effective model for a work-life balance that allows for people to experience significant benefits from de-stressing and relaxation.