Unhealthy Standards

A French woman who has traveled the world and lived in several different countries moved to the United States a few months ago. She had this to say about the American way of life: “I’ve never before been in a culture where people pride themselves on how busy they are. People here are always talking about how little time they have, and don’t seem to see this as a problem but rather as an indicator they are doing everything right.”

As a woman who has lived in the U.S. my entire life, save a few short stints abroad, I was struck when I heard that. As an American, it is easy to forget that American culture is just that, American. I usually unconsciously believe my way of life is the way that life is, rather than being the common way of life in this particular country. However, if one stops and looks at the way many Americans’ lives are structured, it’s possible to see that indeed we have built our way of life around certain practices and expectations that could just as easily be created in a slightly different way.

For example, employees in the United States are some of the hardest-working people in the world, as evidenced by the number of hours per year worked per employee. A 2014 study found that American workers put in more hours per week than many other industrialized nations.1 In comparison, the average worker in the United Kingdom worked two hours per week less than the average American employee, the French averaged at six hours less per week, and Germans worked eight fewer hours per week. Americans have far fewer vacation days than most other countries, yet most people in the U.S. don’t even take the vacation days they are given, and when they do they tend to continue performing work tasks from their laptops or smartphones.2

On top of the long hours American employees tend to work, women have additional pressures. While there are some men who provide all or most care for their children, in general it is still mothers who are primarily responsible for their kids. Women are generally the ones who must balance childcare options with career decisions. As the women’s liberation movement brought about more career opportunities, the concept of a woman “having it all” came about. The idea that women would no longer have to choose between having children and having careers was exciting and encouraging. However, as more and more women have remained in the workforce after becoming mothers, we’ve realized that it’s impossible to “have it all.” Most mothers who work full-time receive less pay and fewer promotions than their male counterparts,3while continuing to perform a majority of housework and childcare duties when not at work.

The pressures on Americans are not without consequences. In 2014 the United States ranked third highest in the world on three different measures: rates of depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug use (India and China were higher than the U.S. on all three counts).4 I know lots of people who feel that the daily grind is just that, and this is especially true for my friends who are moms. They talk about constantly feeling tired, frazzled, and overwhelmed.

It’s no wonder that if my healthy friends are feeling strained by the demands of the day that I, a person contending with a chronic condition, would feel that getting through each day is a struggle. When tackling the tasks involved in working full-time and caring for two young children, I also have the pain, fatigue, and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) to overcome. This disease slows me down and requires extra effort to perform even small tasks. If life feels like a rat race for many Americans, I’m a rat wearing a heavy backpack.

My general perspective has been that this is just the hand I’ve been dealt, and I have to play my cards the best I can. While that is no doubt true, when I heard the French woman comment that Americans pride ourselves on being busy, it occurred to me that we could change the rules of our card game. What if there were more professional jobs that required 32- or 36-hour work weeks instead of 40 or more? What if instead of the standard two weeks of vacation Americans had the 4-6 weeks of paid leave common in most other industrialized nations?5 What if instead of having stores open 15-24 hours a day, seven days a week we actually slowed down and spent a little time at home?

Taking a step back from life with RA

Living with a chronic condition is incredibly challenging any way you slice it. However, when I take a step back and look at the frantic pace Americans maintain, it’s no wonder I often feel like I’m barely keeping my head above water. While industry has always been a source of patriotic pride in the United States, there’s no reason why this can’t be paired with some actual downtime where we stop checking work email from our phones, stop eating meals in our cars, and instead focus on ourselves and our loved ones. Undoubtedly this would make things easier for those of us living with chronic illness, and I’m confident it would make life feel more manageable for those lucky in health as well.

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