I’m a freelance writer now, but I used to work full-time in public affairs. Chained to my desk for eight- to twelve-hour days, I often wondered whether I would ever get to enjoy the money I was making when I was spending all my time in the office.
When I really couldn’t take being hemmed into a cubicle next to other disgruntled employees any longer, I would take a break and search the net for some masochistic research about how much better workers in other countries have it than we do in the United States. I would rub salt in my wounds by reading about the Kapauku people of Papua New Guinea, who think it’s bad luck to work two days in a row, or the !Kung Bushmen, who only work two and a half days a week and never for longer than six hours a day.
That, I thought, is life. Not a living, but a life. The United States lags far behind other countries, especially the European Union, in granting workers vacation time, flexible working hours, and parental leave. American employers don’t seem to have grasped quite yet what other nations have turned into law: that a happy, relaxed worker is a more productive one.
Time Off Is Time Well Spent
Why do the French live longer than Americans despite consuming plenty of fat and red wine? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Americans are workaholics, whereas the French get four to six weeks of vacation time every year, along with their fellow EU members. Australia also grants their employees an average of twenty days per year. In the United Arab Emirates, employees vacation for about thirty days a year, whereas most American workers have only fourteen days of paid leave.
Vacation time in these countries is applicable to all employees, regardless of their length of service; not so in the U.S. Eighty-two percent of American employers provide workers with at least two weeks of vacation after one year of service, according to the human resources firm Hewitt Associates. After five years, 75 percent of employers will grant three weeks, and only after fifteen years of service will 87 percent of employers provide four weeks of paid vacation time.
Europeans will laugh at Americans’ talk of budgeting sick days, too. They get paid time off if they’re sick, no matter how often that happens. When you think about it, it makes sense. You weren’t planning that flu, and your coworkers wouldn’t want you in the office anyway, so why should you be penalized for not working?
EU law calls for a forty-eight hour maximum workweek, but individual countries typically opt for a thirty-five hour week, although their motive is to preserve jobs more than it is to give workers time off.
The French, for example, typically work a thirty-five-hour week with no paid overtime allowed. That amounts to an additional twenty-two days a year that Americans spend in their cubicles. That’s not to mention the myriad public holidays for which workers also get time off.
Australians, though they are not part of the EU, have it even better. Their workweeks are a little over thirty hours on average, though the national limit is thirty-seven.
The working day is different in some other countries, as well. In Spain, for example, workers start at 9 a.m. and then break around 2 p.m. for an extended lunch and lounging period that lasts until 4 p.m. They leave for the day at 6 p.m. This is common in Mediterranean countries, where the middle of the day is usually too hot to get any work done. Southern France, Greece, and Italy have similar practices, although globalization is slowly forcing all major economies to conform to the 9 to 5 shift.
From Cubicle to Cradle and Back
My jaw dropped to the floor during the part of Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko when he tells us that not only do French women get plenty of paid maternity leave, a government worker comes over to fold their laundry after they have the baby! Compared to that, America’s average twelve weeks of maternity leave sounds tantamount to forcing women to have their babies on the sweat shop floor.
Though all countries provide mothers with at least some protected job leave, the amount of time and the level of compensation varies, as does the amount of leave for the father of the child. France ranks highest in providing paid maternity leave, with 162 weeks. Germany and Spain follow close behind. Switzerland and the United States are the least generous, with fourteen and twelve weeks, respectively.
Some countries offer over a year of job-protected leave for fathers on a “use it or lose it” basis. Spain tops the list at 160 weeks, along with France at 156 weeks. The United States offers twelve weeks, the same for mothers, which is better than Australia, Canada, Japan, and Switzerland—they offer no paternity leave at all.
Of course, time off isn’t really all that great if it’s not paid. Spain offers 312 weeks per couple of parental leave, but only pays for eighteen of them. By contrast, Finland offers only forty-eight weeks per couple, but pays for thirty-two of them.
Parents can also take leave on a part-time basis in some European countries. Greek parents can take their leave continuously or reduce their schedule by one hour per day for thirty months. Spanish workers are eligible for part-time schedules until their child’s eighth birthday. Norwegian moms and dads can take leave together if both work part-time.
Work Ethic or Burnout?
Although American workers don’t have as much legislated vacation time and flexibility as most European countries, we actually don’t come off too badly. The Japanese have a term, karoshi, to describe death from overwork. And were I in a developing country like Burma, I would be complaining about the fact that my fingers were bleeding from sewing clothes for twenty hours straight, not that my computer monitor hurts my eyes.
The truth of the matter is that even if we were allowed more time off, most of us wouldn’t take it. Even though 40 percent of American workers report their job to be extremely stressful, we only take about 71 percent of the vacation time we already have. Either we’re too busy at work to get away, we feel too much social pressure to stay in our offices, or perhaps we just don’t make enough money.
How do other countries manage such a permissive attitude toward working time? It’s simply due to a difference in priorities, specifically regarding the place of money in society. Americans work to accumulate wealth; the more money, we think, the happier we will be. The French, however, understand that happiness precedes income. To them, happiness comes from having time to spend with family and recharge, not from keeping up with the Joneses.
First published May 2009 on Divine Caroline