In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit and vote for.If you dig this idea, let me know if the comments, and submit your ideas and votes.

This week’s reader’s choice post: What’s the impact of 60 hour work weeks and only 2 weeks of vacation on American companies? (submitted by Lynn – thx!)

The running joke at any big corporation is the phrase ‘work/life balance‘. Anywhere that needs to make a special phrase like this is by definition a place populated by workaholics. You’d never hear people talk about ‘work/breathing’ balance, or ‘work/clothing’ balance, because work never puts a supply of oxygen or a shirt on your back in question, unless you’re a workaholic naked astronaut or something.

It’s interesting how us Americans are fond of taking pride in our freedoms, yet when it comes to time off we are the least free for much of the Western world. It’s typical in Europe to get 6-8 weeks off 4-6 weeks off, commonly taken in the summer. This explains, in part, why Europeans have a deeper sense of their own culture, as they actually have time to learn, experience and enjoy the parts of life not spent in front of keyboards or in meetings.

Frankly, hours are a lousy way to measure value. If I can do great work in 5 hours, work my peers at best do in 10, that’s not my problem. I should be rewarded for results, not how much time it took me to get them. A good manager knows this. Good companies know this too. My best managers made clear they didn’t care about the HR policies for time off, or hourly reporting. They knew I’d be motivated to work hardest for them if after I got my stuff done, and had done it very well, I was free to do as I wished. (Oddly, in cultures like this, I tended to stay late and kept working because I enjoyed my work so much).

The impact of the 60 hour work week, or any rigidly defined number of hours, is that smart people loaf around. Rather than be efficient, clever, and wise, and go home, people feel obligated, are in some cases are rewarded, to linger, to pretend, and to give pretense about how long it takes to actually do things. This is all kinds of bad. We should reward people who kick significant ass and then go home. Early. Not those who pull all-nighters for things that were never that complex to begin with. All sorts of goodness happens when managers learn to reward results, not effort. And this starts by getting past the stupid pretense of effort known as hours.

Miserly vacation limits are juvenile and short term thinking. It assumes that time off is bad for the company, and puts faith in the notion that doing things outside of work is an indulgence. God bless the Puritans, as we are still victimized by the prudish stink of their ideals. We want to be whole people, and being whole means having an identity beyond work. We are more than our jobs. Two weeks of vacation takes a bet employees won’t be around that long, so why invest in their long term happiness? If they burn out, it’s not our problem. That’s what two weeks of vacation says to me.

A major reason I quit my job in 2003 was to have complete control over my TIME. The only measure of life you can not get more of. I did not want some corporate policy, written by someone I’d never meet, defining how most of my waking hours on planet earth would be spent. The older I got the more clear it became I’d rather make less money and take on more risk than willingly give away control over MOST OF MY LIFETIME. Especially if the thing I was spending all that time making was mediocre, forgettable and far from what I’d call reaching for my best possible work. But enough about me.

Certainly for any creative field, which many knowledge worker type companies claim they are, time away from work is where much creative growth happens. It’s away from work people have new experiences, see new places, ask new questions, and learn to appreciate the life they’re working so hard to get.When people return from vacation they are better people, not worse (explaining the wise philosophy of rock star web firm, Jackson Fish). And they bring new energy, perspective and ideas back into the company, all things that are essentially priceless.

The objections to more time off typically are:

  • I didn’t get it so why should you. This is bad arguing. Just because something sucked in the past doesn’t justify it sucking now. A tradition of suffering and stupidity isn’t worth defending.
  • If people get more vacation our projects will die! Good managers manage. They can handle working around people’s vacations just as they do already. And of course when to take time off should always be a negotiation between the boss and the worker. Somehow in the U.S. we all know Thanksgiving to New Years is a dead zone. Yet we’re still here.
  • This will mean the end of the world! Yes, the sun will explode and we will all die someday, but this has nothing to do with how much vacation we get or don’t. In fact should the Vogons arrive after you finish reading this post, and announce the destruction of the earth, I’m certain near the top of your list of gripes would be you’d wish you had used more of your vacation, and had been granted more to use.

My bet is, in a well run company with a good manager, if you:

  1. Drop the 40/50/60 hour a week expectation. Treat people like adults.
  2. Clarify the results you want from your staff
  3. Increase people’s vacation days by 50 to 100%
  4. But, and here’s the rub, demand everyone still do the same amount of work they already do every calendar year

You can pull this off without any noticeable decrease in performance. I’d even bet you might see some increases in work quality, as people have real motivation, are free from the pretense of pretending to be busy, and will love their lives so much more and bring some of that love to work with them every day. Why not try this as an experiment for a year?

Other variables worth trying:

  • Let employees choose salary increases vs. more time off. I understand the cost to a company to have people on salary who aren’t working. Fine, come up with a number and let the employee decide if they want raw income increases, or time off increases. Put the equity they’ve earned into their hands and see what they do with it. Then it is truly up to them, without the bean counters complaining.
  • Or work the other way. I never understood why workers can’t give up some % of their salary for additional time off if they want it. Un-paid vacation should be part of every serious company’s benefits plan. It’s a win-win.
  • Stop hiding behind sick days: I don’t understand the accounting, but I’m sure some bean counter has done the math. People don’t use all their sick days, so the more you can push days off into that pile, the better it is on some spreadsheet. “Personal days” and other crap are sneaky ways to attempt to influence behavior. Be on the level.
  • Sabbaticals make sense. Part of why I quit Microsoft in 2003 was I knew I needed a few months to figure things out. At one point I’d have preferred to stay with the company, at no pay, but just to give me some security and the option to stay while I mulled it all over. But this required secret handshakes with executives that I never learned. It made my choice easy: I quit.

It’s surprising, but few companies I’ve heard of have ever experimented with different approaches to vacation and unpaid leave. If you know of examples and case studies, please leave a link.

So what do you think? I’m a insane? Has being independent warped my demented brain? Or is there plenty of room for more time off without betraying the bottom line?

Related: See my essay, work vs progress.

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50 Responses to “Should Americans get more vacation?”

  1. Simon |

    6 – 8 weeks vacation is NOT common in Europe, I’d say it’s 4-6.

    Reply
  2. Scotty |

    a) It’s absolutely not ‘typical’ in Europe to get 6-8 weeks off. Most people get 4 or 5. Currently I have 6, and that’s the most I’ve ever had in my 15 year IT career.

    b) Europeans don’t get all the Martin Luther King/ Memorial / Indpendence / Labor / Columbus / Veterans /Thanksgiving Day holidays that you guys do, though. That’s another week’s worth of vacation right there, even though you can’t take them whenever you like.

    c) We still have to work those 60 hour weeks as well– especially here in the UK, which has the longest average working week in Europe.

    Reply
  3. JRehnvall |

    You sound perfectly sane. ;-) I’ve never really understood the “double standard” of the American work culture. On the one hand – many of the best, most creative organizational thinkers are from here – on the other hand, American organizations are pretty hierarchical – and a tiny two weeks a year to reload your brain is normal standard… If you run a company that relies on creative, smart, new-thinking people – new ways of looking at vacation (in what ever form, paid, un-paid) is one way to secure your bottom line – that your people produce…

    (Sweden has a minimum limit of 25 days/year and they have “holidays” that adds up to the American days. I have 6 weeks a year – and no – you don’t stop thinking about work – but you see it from another angle and come back well rested, full of new ideas and ready to implement. I would agree with Simon and Scotty that 4-6 would be the standard minimum vacation according to law in Europe.)

    Reply
  4. Scott Berkun |

    Part of the trap of the two weeks off standard is for anyone with a family some days are consumed by family activities. These are not actually vacation days, but days spent doing non-work things that are less than fun.

    Combined with the standard holiday weekends (Thanksgiving and Christmas), plus expected visits to family, the number of actual days per year people get to actually vacate, and relax, and experience life are quite small.

    Reply
  5. Lynn Cherny |

    Hey Scott, thanks for posting on this. One thing I’m concerned about is the health impact of American work schedules. There have been some studies showing increased heart disease and other stress related illnesses with overwork; here’s a kickoff article: http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/no-vacation-nation.

    On the topic of pan-Europe policies and national holidays… France, when I worked there, had most of the month of May off for national and religious holidays. Hotels and trains were booked all over the place for locals taking long weekends :-) And they also had that month of August thing going on, and the 35-hour work week (which admittedly was not always honored by smaller firms like mine).

    Reply
  6. Katy |

    Hey Scott – For high performers and self motivated folks, holding people to goals vs. focusing on how many hours/day their butts are warming their chairs is a far better concept. The downfall is that many managers (and organizations) don’t have sufficiently well defined goals to implement that solution. I do like the choice of time off vs. salary increases. Business Week had an article on companies that offered sabbaticals back in 2006 (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_02/b3966083.htm) – I don’t know if it still applies though…

    Reply
  7. Pawel Brodzinski |

    Not a link to a case study at least unless I write one but… I worked for a small company where I was a decision-maker when it came to decide about time off for all technical staff. Although I’m biased for sure I believed we always found a way when people needed time off.

    We used:
    * Unpaid vacations. Whenever someone run out of paid vacations they could get some time for free.

    * All sorts of part-time/full-time changes. When someone needed some time to deal with non-work-related stuff they could change a their involvement. Worked great for fresh parents and for students.

    * Telecommuting. In our case telecommuting could work but in vast majority of cases performance of telecommuter was significantly lower. Anyway both parties treated it as a part-time-off. Time when you could go your own errands etc.

    I haven’t faced the situation but if someone would ask me for a half a year off (unpaid) I’d probably agree too.

    Now, I’m aware some people just used this behavior to have more time off but on average it was win-win. There were some people who knew they can count on me when they really need some free time but on the other hand I knew I can count on them whenever emergency happens. And not every emergency happens between 9 am and 5 pm.

    On a side note: with this kind of approach you have to be asshole from time to time and reject one’s request to remind people sometimes is really bad time to take the day off to go skiing when project is in rescue mode.

    Reply
  8. Betawriter |

    You are absolutely right, Scott. Nice to read that from an American. You know what? No smart knowledge worker can work for 50 or 60 hours a wee, that’s just impossible. Not even 40 hours.

    You might need to work a lot from time to time (to meet a deadline or when you are inspired), but forcing someone to be mentally productive for 8-10 hours a day is just nonsense.

    I also agree that there is a lot of puritanism in the US (and the UK), not present in other countries, like the Mediterranean ones. Your (hidden) moral is that “you are what you work”, and the more you suffer, the better. Our own moral (in Spain) is just the opposite. However, that leads to different problems. But that’s another story.

    Have you read “How to be free” by Tom Hodgkinson, a UK author? Really fun and instructive to read. He shares your view about the Puritans.

    Highly recommended for all you guys :)

    Reply
  9. Maciej ?ebkowski |

    Hey, I just wanted to say that here in Poland we have a base of 20 vacation days, and that can grow up to 26 days based on your career/education length. And education time means a lot, so two years after you graduate you have the additional six days.
    In addition to that, there are 11

    Reply
  10. goofydg1 |

    Good article. I heard a story years ago about an executive (I think Iacocca) that had just entered a company and was talking with a senior manager that told him he hadn’t taken a vacation day in five years because he was too important. The legend goes he fired him on the spot. When asked why he said, “If he can’t manage well enough that his people can survive without him while he’s on vacation, he’s a horrible manager.”

    I’m not European but have worked with many that say they get that 6-8 week range. Regardless, I’d love to get even four-six weeks :-)

    Reply
  11. Stephen James |

    I work at a company with 10 employees and the response I receive on this topic is that no one else can do my work or fix some of the problems that might come up, so its more about being available and being able to answer questions quickly.

    Reply
  12. Mike |

    Agreed, particularly on the pay-vs.-vacation point. I have, for the last couple years, argued that one of the things we should choose during open enrollment is our vacation accrual rate. The people who never take vacation and want to work all the time can dial it down to the minimum and take a pay increase instead; the people who have to travel to visit family and really want 4-6 weeks a year can get it, and have a commensurately lower salary.

    Reply
  13. Joel D Canfield |

    I work for me now. Biggest benefit is control of my time and schedule (any self-employed person who allows their clientele to control their schedule needs to hire themselves a business or personal manager.)

    Last two companies I worked at got this, to some degree. First one, I started out with 3 weeks the first year, 4 weeks the next, 5 weeks the third and onward. Sorta made me wanna give something back.

    Last place I worked as an employee, I took a month of unpaid leave to spend it in Ireland. That trip with my wife and daughters changed my life. (I suspect management knew I’d quit in order to go, but they really didn’t push back; good people, they were.)

    No, you’re not crazy. I don’t charge by the hour for anything I do. My wife is moving her VA services away from hourly and toward outcome-oriented pricing.

    Way way back in school, I was cheesed off that I could listen to the teacher, finish tonights homework before they finished lecturing, and then sit there for the rest of the time reading Asimov, when I could have been home reading Asimov. I hated all the wasted time in school, waiting for everyone else to finish, and I’ve always hated that slowcoaches who took 60 hours to finish their work were perceived as ‘more dedicated’ employees than I was for finishing more complex stuff in half the time.

    Measuring output in hours is rarely, if ever, sensible.

    I love the seemingly random connection you make between vacation time and cultural appreciation. Worth a ponder, that.

    Reply
  14. Jane |

    Great post. We are still labouring under Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theories of piecework. It is truly amazing that most companies still scoff at the innovations of open-work atmospheres like what have been popularized in Silicon Valley. I’m sitting in my cubicle, walled off from my co-workers, in my dress clothes and mandatory tie. The tie of course is making me so much more productive that I’m sitting here typing this post instead of working…

    Reply
  15. JFK |

    A strong work ethic is what has made America the global economic engine that helps keep afloat many of the European nations that you’d like to emulate. The attitude of entitlement that you’re pitching is what has created these conditions. A nation that looks to a future where less work and more handouts are the goal is one in decline.

    I own a small business. I’ll tell you what – let my competitor encourage his employees to work less and take time off. Then I’ll mop up his unhappy customers when his productivity declines.

    It’s no wonder that these sorts of values are infecting our society, when almost 40% of our citizens pay no income tax. Without any skin in the game, why not ask for a society that demands less and provides more?

    Reply
  16. gaspard |

    Hi,

    I’m a frenchie quite well paid with a bit more than 7 weeks of vacation and 40 to 45 hours per week. I’ve been approched by big firms with 40% to 80% higher salary but only 3 weeks of vacation and more than 50 hours a week. I have not even think about it. I enjoy life and travels far to much to accept that !

    Reply
  17. Jim |

    cool. cool. cool. article.

    I feel just like you write in “The impact of the 60 hour work week…”

    BTW: I live in Europe and enjoy flextime (38.5 hours per week is considered normal) and 5 weeks of payed vacation.

    Reply
  18. Toshi O. |

    Nice article, but I’m not sure it actually steered the conversation one way or the other in answering the question that it posed.

    I personally would love an increase of vacation days, but in practicality it can be difficult for companies to quantify work performed – especially for non-revenue generating folks who support the business.

    I think more tangible steps for companies to be able to do this and case studies where there were tangible benefits would make this article solid.

    Reply
  19. Elisabeth |

    Excellent blog post, it’s about time an American wrote it!
    As a Canadian living in Montreal, I have often said that we “work like the Americans and live like the Europeans”. The standard vacation here for a professional is 3 weeks, which is one week more than the Americans, though considerably less than in Europe. Moreover, our offices were often empty at 6:00pm, especially on a Friday. And you never tried to reach someone on the weekend or on their vacation, that was just wrong.

    Working at a Canadian branch at an American company gave me ample opportunity to compare productivity and results and, lo and behold, we were certainly not less productive than our American colleagues. In other words, respecting personal time did not cause the “end of the world”.

    As a Project Manager, I held to my own principles of respecting someone’s time off: if they were silly enough to answer the phone while on vacation, and I figured that out during the call (if they didn’t tell me), then I promptly ended the call with “sorry, you’re on vacation, don’t answer the phone next time yeesh, I’ll figure something out.” One person, when he came back, thanked me for that. Of course I managed. Duh.

    On another project, a customer pushed his schedule forward which changed the date our engineer (working out of one of our American offices) needed to show up on site. He called me, afraid, saying that “his wife would kill him because that would mean missing his kid’s birthday party.” All I did was tell the customer that “the engineer was not available” that weekend and could we work something out? It turned out that this customer loved this engineer so much that we were indeed able to get some things started from the office, and have the customer wait 2 days before our guy showed up on site and of course the world did not end. (The project finished on time, under budget and the customer wildly happy.) The engineer ended up commenting that I “was not like an American project manager”. And he remained forever loyal to me. No matter what I asked for in future projects.

    If you make a commitment to respecting other people’s personal time, you do get more in the end. It is just so sad that so many companies just can’t figure that out.

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth |

    Hey “JFK” re: “I own a small business. I

    Reply
  21. barbara pagano |

    Scott,
    Fantastic post. Thanks for listing sabbaticals as alternative. Actually, it’s a strong trend and one that is growing in large as well as small companies. Two recent studies out with extremely positive results for organizations and individuals – non-profit sector and the ministry. Nothing yet in the business world, but we’re working on that!

    Great writing.
    Barbara

    Reply
  22. Brian |

    Quality vs quantity. It should be the golden rule. However, if a company adopts this model, it wont be long before a “less productive” employee takes the employer to court and sues because they are always in the office longer than Joe and Sally and are being discrimintated against.
    I believe that most of your wise executives would agree that time off and flexible schedules are conducive to increased productivity, but cannot implement same because eventually someone will sue them for it and they will have to adopt the same old practices of “fairness to all”, that is actually quite the opposite.

    Reply
  23. greg |

    Its not going to change anytime soon. Until about 6 months ago I worked for Computer Science Corp. They take vacation a step further. You need to bill 2080 hrs a year, period. Taking vacation, holidays, or sick time means working lot of extra hours to make up the time. For CSC its all about stock holder value.
    Interesting that Pawel found Telecommuting less productive. I have been working that way for close to ten years. I routinely get more done then those on site. When I have been at a work site there were a lot more interruptions. Maybe its the person that makes or breaks this. Funny that we will send work to the other side of the world but not let someone telecommute that lives 60 miles away.

    Reply
  24. Re: JFK |

    “A strong work ethic is what has made America the global economic engine that helps keep afloat many of the European nations that you

    Reply
  25. Eduardo Vieira |

    Greg,

    The problem it is that your company (and you) are selling hours of work and not results. It does

    Reply
  26. Nikeofnargothrond |

    This article really speaks my mind (or at least what I’d like to say at work).

    I was a Department Manager for a large company and tried to accommodate everyone’s vacation requests when they wanted them. I spent a few months on the floor observing people more closely than I ever have before. I did not like what I found. We work 12 hour shifts and I found many associates only working about 4-6 hours. I said nothing, merely observed people. Production numbers were up and our quality was high. Customer’s orders and demands were being met on time and with little problems.

    After seeing this for few weeks, I began to speak to the associates about why they were on breaks so much and why they stood around so much, etc… Some of the answers I didn’t agree with so I decided to investigate more on my own. After my 7-3 hours were completed and my work was finished for the day, I spent four additional hours on the floor with the associates doing the work they did; quality checks, work order verifications, material checks, etc… I found they literally had too little work to do in the full 12 hours. I found myself standing around much of the time as well with nothing to do. Supervisors and associates looked at me like I was insane when I told people to go home and take the rest of the shift off.

    I brought the finding of my month long “experiment” to my boss and proposed changing the work week from 7 days to 5 days and allowing more vacation time to be given since the 60-70 hours work weeks were not necessary. Hell, we were forecasting orders nearly three weeks out. There were no reasons to make the associates be here 7 days a week. I recommended some of the alternatives mentioned in this article.

    The ending result was that I was told “We’ve always done it this way, why would we change it now? They are here because we say they have to be.”

    I fought and fought this up to the corporate level until I had been laughed out of the room with the VP of Operations for the company. I handed in my resignation two weeks later. I worked up to where I was by hard work and dedication to the companies I had worked for. I began as a packer (bottom paying position) and worked up to a Operations Manager in only a decade with no college degree. As management we are supposed to be representatives of the company.

    I could no longer represent a company that put up the facade that “Employees are our number one asset” when it was evident that there was no truth or integrity in that saying at all.

    I believe that harder work in less time is key. Too much time at work is wasted and is non-value added. My family and I have spent much time over the years considering relocating out of the country. We were on the fence about to do it or not and after looking into the work ethic relationships between the US and some other countries. We have decided to make the move to New Zealand in the next few years. My wife and I decided we only have one life to live and why spend it working the majority of the time when you can work and have a life at the same time? Unfortunately, this is not the mentality of US companies and I fear it will be many years or take a drastic event to force the US to mature…

    Reply
  27. Elisabeth |

    Nikeofnargothrond: Thanks so much for sharing your story, especially since you were able to back it up with data from your “experiment”. And you are certainly right: I now mistrust any company who feels the need to point out that “Employees are our greatest asset” as those are the most hypocritical of all.

    Reply
  28. Steve |

    Scott, I came across your site here as I was writing an article on my blog about vacations. I was actually looking for some statistics but your information here helped me a lot. I really like your topic and all the comments you are getting is awesome.

    I am going to put a link in my article that will allow my readers to come here and read this article.

    Sincerely,
    Steve Wood

    Reply
  29. Tommy |

    What’s vacation and time off? My current job has no paid sick days, and we get 5 paid personal/vacation days a year, a whopping 10 days after 2 years…

    Reply
  30. Sally |

    I agree with your theories that productivity will improve and the quality of the lives of employees will improve as well. My problem with your formula is that there are more and more jobs that are 24×7 companies and they have to be staffed at all times to achieve their 24×7 customer service stamp of approval by accrediting companies. I work for one of these companies myself. How do you argue with someone that gives you a bad 11 hour day/4 day a week schedule and tells you if you don’t want it, there are plenty of unemployed americans out there looking for work and will work for a lot less doing the same thing? Time off is an incentive, but so is money for the increased cost of living in this God forsaken country.

    Reply
  31. Shelly |

    I would like to say that MANY Americans “don’t get all the Martin Luther King/ Memorial / Indpendence / Labor / Columbus / Veterans /Thanksgiving Day holidays that you guys do, though. That’s another week’s worth of vacation right there, even though you can’t take them whenever you like.” It’s not like America rolls up the welcome mat and locks the doors to businesses to give employees time off on these holidays. I am a State Employee and I don’t get Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day off! I always thought that working for the government at least insured these holidays but I’m proof that it doesn’t. I am not a doctor, nurse, fireman or any type of essential personnel. I am an Administrative Assistant. And the thing is, there is no mandated rule or law that says that an employer has to give an American worker ANY time off! I challenge anyone to find one protection for vacation/holiday time off.

    Reply
  32. Joel |

    Vogons.Yes.

    Reply
  33. nicholas peart |

    to be honest with you scott berkun i really agree with you buddie about all of this stuff you wrote good job on writing all of these down i appreciate it thank you.

    Reply
  34. Greg Linster |

    Scott, did you ever read Dan Pink’s book Free Agent Nation? It is very relevant to the main idea presented in this post.

    Reply
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