this weekAll in Good Time

October 28, 2004

Work Week and Vacation Variances

Stress, rest, and productivity

A Swiss friend was telling me one summer about his upcoming four-week vacation. I said something like, “Wow, four weeks!” and his reply was, “Yeah, that leaves me with only two weeks of vacation for the whole rest of the year!” When I asked how many years he had been working to save up that much vacation time, he didn’t know what I meant. “Six weeks of paid vacation per year is normal in Switzerland,” he said. “Why, how many do you get?” I told him that two was the norm but that my employer was especially generous and offered three—and more after you’d worked there for a few years. My friend was shocked. How could anyone survive with that little time off?

I had never really thought about it like that, because the mere possibility of longer vacations (or “holidays,” as they’re known in some places) had simply never crossed my mind: it just doesn’t work that way in North America. Not long after that discussion, I went to the doctor because of some symptoms that he said were caused by stress. “How many hours a week do you work?” he asked. I replied, “I don’t know, 50 or 60, give or take.” He said, “That’s the first thing you have to change. Work to rule.” I wasn’t familiar with that expression. He said, “You’re getting paid for 40 hours, so work 40 hours. Tell your boss it’s doctor’s orders; he has no right to demand any more than that.” And I thought: “As if!” Most employers in North America—especially in the high tech field—expect salaried employees to work as many hours a week as it takes to keep their projects on schedule, which is another way of saying they expect your work to be your life. To suggest otherwise would be to endanger your job.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that Europe had adopted a 35-hour work week as standard. Unthinkable. How shockingly, blatantly sane.

Follow the Money
In the United States, employees work, on average, considerably more hours per year than in any other industrialized nation; Europeans, on average, work the fewest hours. (Japanese employees work the second-highest number of hours, by the way—but Japan also mandates 25 days of paid vacation per year.) The usual explanation given for this imbalance is that Americans are “workaholics,” a condition we are presumably supposed to be proud of. I don’t think that’s true, however. Americans may work a lot, but not usually because they’re addicted to it; on the contrary, they feel they have no choice. In America’s competitive job market, most salaried workers would never dream of telling their employers that they expect to work no more than 40 hours a week, because there are plenty of others who are willing to work twice as long for the same pay. It would be one thing if those extra hours translated into proportionally greater pay and benefits, but usually they don’t—and even hourly workers, who sometimes volunteer to work overtime, generally do so only for the extra money, not because they actually enjoy the work.

Nor are those long hours offset by days off. Americans are lucky if they get more than 10 paid days off per year, even though they work many more hours per week than their European counterparts. And needless to say, the hours spent at work are not typically the most enjoyable ones of the day; stress in the American workplace is notoriously high.

Work While You Whistle
But now the shocking news. When France reduced its official work week to 35 hours a few years ago, studies showed that there was no loss in productivity. That’s not to say, of course, that an American who currently works 60 hours while being paid for 40 would get just as much work done in 35. But it does mean that the connection between hours on the job and productivity is not as close as one might think. Some commentators have noted that Europeans spend a greater proportion of their work days with their “nose to the grindstone,” so to speak, whereas Americans spend more work time socializing or being otherwise unproductive. Then again, this may be nothing more than a way of saying that Americans have found ways of coping with a higher level of workplace stress.

Shorter work weeks sometimes mean lower pay, but they also mean lower unemployment. Several countries that have shortened their work weeks to 35 hours in recent years have seen a dramatic drop in unemployment, as businesses hire additional workers to ensure adequate coverage. In the U.S., though, employers would have a much harder time expanding their workforces to compensate for shorter work weeks, because of the high cost of providing benefits to full-time employees. In Europe, health insurance (for example) is paid for by taxes, rather than by businesses and their employees.

Time Off Is Good Behavior
Then there’s vacation time. In the 15 nations of the European Union, by law all full-time employees must be given a minimum of four weeks’ paid vacation per year; the same is true for part-time employees who have worked for at least 13 weeks. The notion of “accruing” vacation time doesn’t apply; you are generally entitled to your four (or more) weeks of vacation from the moment you’re hired. And these vacation days are in addition to statutory holidays scattered throughout the year. There’s also an important psychological difference: in the U.S., vacation time is permitted but not usually encouraged—it’s treated as an inconvenience to the employer. In Europe, by contrast, it’s simply part of the culture; it’s what people are supposed to do.

I can barely imagine what overwhelming crisis would have to occur in the U.S. to get employers to adopt more rational and healthy work week and vacation schedules. But an organization known as The Simplicity Forum has launched an initiative called “Take Back Your Time Day” to promote awareness of the dangers of overwork and the imbalance between North American and European work schedules. Their premise is simple and compelling: by October 24 of any given year, the average American or Canadian will have worked as many hours as the average European will in the entire year. Counting shorter work weeks and longer vacations, the average European gets nine weeks (350 hours) more free time per year. So every October 24, the movement urges North Americans to take the day off and participate in activities that call attention to this disparity.

Being the head of my own company, I tend to ignore the clock and work however long I need to. But researching this article has inspired me to make a concerted effort to treat myself (as an employee) better than that. I’m going to see if I can institute (and enforce) an official policy of 35-hour work weeks for alt concepts, inc., from the Head Honcho to the unpaid interns. (Yeah…all of us.) Four-week vacations are going to be trickier, but I could always threaten to go on strike. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Work Week and Vacation Variances…

To learn how you can participate in Take Back Your Time Day, visit their Web site.

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The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure by Harvard Economist Juliet B. Schor is a detailed look at the steadily rising number of work hours and declining number of leisure hours in America.

Many articles have been written about Europe’s shorter work weeks and the differences in work weeks between North America and Europe. A few examples:

Here’s a similar range of articles on vacation time variances:

Europe’s workplace revolution in the July 29, 2004 edition of The Economist, argues that allowing German (and possibly French) employers the flexibility to require longer work weeks is vital to the economy.