“Break” is a word of contradictions, of perfectly pleasant connotations and awful ones. Summer break? “Diet Coke break”? Kit-Kat bars? Simply grand. Heartbreak, breaking bones, Breaking Bad? Not so much fun.
I supposed one’s knee-jerk reaction to the word “break” could be seen as a sort of litmus test – a simplistic “glass half full/empty”-style barometer to brand someone as optimist or pessimist. I’m wholeheartedly the former, as “break” conjures in my mind not visions of fractured tibias and emotional devastation but relaxation, indulgence, silliness, sweet relief. It’s like a fresh breeze sweeping down from the mountains, a gulp of cold water on a hot day, the feeling of waking up hours before your alarm and dozing to your heart’s content. A “break” is a time to let down one’s guard, to socialize, to eat and drink and sleep and read and watch TV and be merry/do whatever you want for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, two weeks, or – in the case of summer break for the young and lucky – three months.
But while the term “break” often causes my dreamer-mind to fill with thoughts of holidays and beach time and Stranger Things-esque scenes of those listless mall-rat summer days of youth, “break” is a term in the capitalist lexicon, an unpleasant reminder that most employed people do not, at least in the confines of the workday, control their own time. As we wind down the summer and head into a new semester of busyness for staff, faculty and administrators in academia, it’s worth considering the concept of “breaks,” and why we should fight for them.
At work, a “break” implies a separation, stoppage or interruption; thus a break is defined not by what it adds, but by what it subtracts. However, breaks, despite the fact that Americans don’t get to take nearly enough of them, give us a lot. If organizations cared about their employees’ productivity and quality of work, they would encourage them to take time off. Yet a 2018 study by the US Travel Association found that more than half of Americans failed to use all of their vacation time the previous year, with the top reasons being a fear of being replaced, a heavy workload and no one to cover their duties.
Breaks are vital to our productivity at work – and also, ahem, our ability to live decent lives as human beings and not productivity machines. In a 2017 NBC News article, a number of psychologists and sociologists explained that people who don’t take enough time off can become addicted to work, resulting in a vicious cycle where work is their only source of self-worth. On the other hand, research has shown that those who take time off and make the most of it are more energetic and innovative, with a healthier perspective resulting in greater happiness. And while vacation time is key, even short breaks are vital to minimizing stress and increasing creativity.
Shockingly, there is no federal law requiring lunch or “coffee” breaks for workers, though short breaks of 5-20 minutes or so can be included in compensable work hours, meaning covered by an employee’s pay. (Now I understand why when I worked eight-hour days at Starbucks, I was forced to clock out during the 30 minutes I was given to run to the nearest café and choke down a meal.) But according to Working America, an organization founded to provide support to union-less employees around the country, many companies fail to pay employees even during these short breaks, in some cases even manipulating them into doing some form of unpaid work during “break time.” Unbelievable, right? And it doesn’t just happen at gigantic companies like Amazon.
Overwork and a lack of breaks is a problem with which many university staff, faculty and administrators are also familiar. While less research has been conducted on university staff than faculty, staff members are clearly at-risk of being denied breaks, as their jobs are typically less flexible and often not salaried. Academia is currently in a time of crisis due to cuts in education funding at the national and state levels (the most recent example being devastating cuts in Alaska), which often leads to staff layoffs. Anecdotally, many of us have seen the result of this: the staff members who are spared have to take on larger work loads, leading to a reduction in the amount of vacation and break time they feel they are able to take without running the risk of losing their jobs as well.
Though faculty members’ schedules are typically more flexible, their diverse responsibilities can often result in overwork as well. The 2018 suicide of a lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales has drawn attention to the extreme workloads handled by many faculty across the United Kingdom, and in the United States much has been written about the plight of adjunct lecturers, who often teach heavy, hectic course loads. Even full-time and tenure-track faculty face overwork without sufficient break time – particularly women, who studies have shown tend to bear the brunt of service obligations in addition to teaching and research.
And yet, as Pomona College professor Kevin Dettmar writes in an article for The Awl, “The Shame of the Professor’s Summer Vacation,” many faculty are shamed for vacationing in the summer, even though travel is commonly work-related. This means their “vacation” often comes with expectations for publishing, teaching, presenting or networking. The conflation of faculty travel for work with “vacation” is dangerous in that it devalues the work faculty do while at the same time offers an excuse to deprive them of legitimate break-time.
All this is to say that low-wage retail workers are not the only ones being deprived of breaks – and all of us need to fight for the time that is rightfully ours. We must resist the urge to take pride in overwork, and instead fight to keep our sanity, perspective, energy and health in a society that revolves around the concept of “productivity.” It may help to think back to one’s childhood: did we spend summer break feeling guilty for taking time off? Did we advocate for three-month summer school, concerned that we were neglecting our duties as students? Most of us, at least, did not. Instead, we used that time to explore our world and ourselves, to improve our relationships with family and friends, to rest and relax and enjoy simply being human. The next time you resolve to work through lunch, take a moment to remember how good that break time in your younger days felt. You deserve to feel it again.