Paid time off to visit national parks
Matt Baird | Thursday, November 9, 2023
“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson opens his 1863 essay “Nature” with this rhetorical question. Emerson expressed this concern 43 years before the lightbulb was invented. If he saw my screen time last summer, he would surely die. Our world is very different from Emerson’s, but the fundamental human affinity for being in nature remains. It is there, even if you have not explored it yet, “non-outdoorsy” people. It is the most fundamental way in which we relate to the world and discover more about ourselves.
I had the privilege of growing up in California, where I can take a 20-minute drive during fall break to see thousands of ladybugs overwintering in Reinhardt Regional Park. My school offered many outdoor experiences from backpacking trips in Death Valley to scuba diving trips on Catalina Island. Exploring the natural beauty of California has given me a deep appreciation for outdoor spaces and my place in nature as a human being. When I am in nature, I feel most myself. It has allowed me to be more present than I would normally be and more aware of the thoughts that I lose in the busyness of the day. My time outdoors has also helped me discover more about what it means to be human. Emerson puts it well later in his essay. He describes: “In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.” Nature allows us to step outside of our egos and recalibrate our minds. The landscape is indifferent to a lost loved one or a newborn in the family, so when we look long enough, we become present enough to experience our immediate sensations and forget our phantom stresses. For this, I believe that everyone should make it a priority to spend time out in nature.
There is a general consensus in the scientific community that regularly engaging in nature improves our health. In a study published by the National Library of Medicine, researchers reported that “92% [of subjects] demonstrated consistent improvements across any health outcome where individuals engaged with natural outdoor environments. Mental health outcomes improved across 98% of studies.”
This is all good stuff. What about our jobs? We cannot just get up and go from the office to spend time in la-la land whenever we please. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, adults in the US work an average of 8.01 hours each weekday and 5.55 hours on weekend days. For Americans working in professional service industries, 94% work over 50 hours per week, and 77% of Americans report experiencing burnout in their jobs. Forbes reports that managing the psychological impact of burnout costs between $125 billion and $190 billion every year in healthcare costs. These statistics indicate that the work-life balance culture in the American workforce is not only poor enough to make the majority of workers burn out but also extremely costly.
So let’s just go out to regional parks on our days off, right? People have other responsibilities and hobbies outside of their careers, so it is hard for people to make the time to go on day trips on the weekends. The federal government could mandate annual paid time off to visit national parks. In France, the government mandates five weeks of paid vacation each year for workers. A fraction of this time could be mandated to incentivize workers to visit national parks. This would bring in more revenue to the parks which would help expand their restoration and conservation efforts. Moreover, the government may see it fitting to open more regional parks to alleviate the traffic. Less tangibly, the exposure to nature that Americans would experience would increase general mindfulness of environmental issues and climate change.
If that seems extreme, companies themselves could include paid time off to go to national and regional parks as an employment benefit. This would increase both employee health and productivity, which would be a fiscal incentive for the company. The paid time off may also save companies healthcare costs for their employees. The cost of visiting a national park is relatively cheap as well, making it easier for workers to take advantage of the paid time off compared to having paid time off for general vacation time.
In either case, workers and companies alike would benefit. The effect that paid time off for natural exploration would have on the US adult population would be immeasurable, but the population would generally have greater mental health and awareness of their environments, which would make for more informed voters.
Matt Baird, proud native of Danville, California, is a sophomore majoring in English and finance. He enjoys walking, listening to music and humming.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.