Sanitariums like Battle Creek became places to restore whatever ailed the body or spirit. To be sure, quackery abounded: Kellogg believed in spinal douches and eugenics. But with the right combination of relaxation, engagement, and yogurt enemas, you could leave feeling like Rockefeller, who came for a stay in 1922.
Sometimes, the treatments even worked. “People responded to the fact that something was being done for them,” Edward Shorter, a medical historian and the author of How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown, told me. “The placebo is a very powerful treatment.” And the experience of communal recuperation prevented the social isolation of private seclusion.
But the cost of a sanitarium stay in the 1930s could run as high as $3,000 a week in today’s dollars, putting it outside the reach of the comfortably middle class. That would still be true today. And even if we could somehow eliminate the financial hurdles, we’d be faced with the cultural ones that Weber traced to Ben Franklin—time is money, idleness is sloth, and all that. Anything that smacked of, say, government-subsidized spa days, no matter how healthful those might be, would be considered un-American.
So rather than the nervous breakdown writ large, we could introduce a more modestly scaled version of it: a series of buffers, firebreaks, or (to use a bankruptcy metaphor) bridge loans to stave off the full Chapter 11 scenario. The French lent us reculer pour mieux sauter—literally “to withdraw in order to make a better jump.” We could slip something more muscularly American, like power break or power-up, into our national lexicon. “Boss, I need a power-up” isn’t an admission of weakness; it’s a simple statement of fact. Achieving widespread cultural acceptance of the practice may take less time than you’d expect—consider how swiftly paternity leave traversed the gap from unheard-of to expected.
The mini-break could insinuate itself into American life in bite-size increments. When I asked an intensive-care nurse what a power break might look like for her, she said it could be small. A two-minute “debrief” after a death in the unit—a moment to stop, reflect, and connect with the constant and familiar—would go a long way in helping someone regroup before they have to lurch to the next crisis. Though the psychic needs of an ICU nurse are particular, the basic concept is generalizable.
Adam Waytz, a management professor at Northwestern, says that to be effective, breaks should entail true disconnection from work—which is to say we need to be able to slip off our electronic leashes. Both France and Spain have made “the right to disconnect” from after-hours work communication an actual legal right. Daimler, the German auto manufacturer, may have gone the furthest of any company toward establishing full mental-bankruptcy protection for its workers: When Daimler employees take time off, they can opt to have their incoming emails deleted on arrival, with senders getting politely notified that their message has been destroyed and that if they need something urgently, they can contact an alternate person. “The idea,” Daimler has said, “is to give people a break and let them rest. Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.”