I’m a freelance writer now, but I used to work full-time in public affairs. Chained to my desk for eight- to 12-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.