September is a time of renewal for the British, German, and French, most of whom take a few weeks off sometime between June and August. The prevailing attitude in these countries is that paid time off work is a fundamental right.
I happen to agree with those who argue that getting a reasonable amount of time away from work leads to greater productivity. But who cares? The point is, everybody deserves a break.
Unfortunately, my compatriots in the US don't have the same attitudes about holidays, and it seems to be getting worse. "The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation," reports the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank.
Despite the absence of laws mandating time off, the market for highly skilled professionals has developed in such a way that Americans working in the private sector can expect employers to offer an average of 10 days paid vacation and six paid bank holidays. Less skilled workers get less than that; and most of the lower-income workers don't get any paid time off at all.
Even the highly skilled professionals get less than half the paid time off workers get in the UK, Germany, and France. What's more, Americans aren't even taking the time off they're granted.
According to a survey conducted earlier this year by Harris Poll on behalf of Glassdoor, 15% of US employees eligible to receive paid time off reported taking no time off in the last 12 months and employees who receive paid time off took on average only 51% of the time off they had coming.
That's not all. According to the same survey, most of those who do take time off, do something related to work while on holiday. A full 61% of those employees who took time of report doing some work while on leave.
Why did so many feel they had to work during their already abbreviated holiday time? The top three reasons reported in the survey were that they felt nobody else at the company could do the work (33%), that they were afraid of getting behind (28%), and that they felt a complete dedication to the company (22%). (Respondents were allowed to choose more than one reason.)
Those of us in IT have a front row view of the mind-boggling rate of improvement in productivity tools we are now enjoying. Just think of how much easier accounting became with the invention of the spreadsheet. Think of the more recent examples of email, video conferencing, and mobile telephony, and how much faster we get things done because we now communicate so much more easily.
The numbers say it all. Worldwide labour productivity has doubled in the last 30 years.
So what does one do with surplus productivity? Those of us who live in the UK, Germany, or France pay ourselves a dividend in the form of time off work. Americans seem to prefer suffering.