We’ve all heard about how extravagant work vacation time is in prime European countries like Germany and France versus that of the U.S. While the American worker gets to squeak out two weeks’ time, plus a few major holidays here and there, his European counterpart earning the same salary level realizes four to six weeks’ time off on average. European Union standards require a minimum of four weeks at least. No surprise, families often use the time to travel, rent a beachside cabin, or go camping near lakes for an extended time off. The American worker, on the other hand, loses half his two weeks physical recovering from exhaustion, and the other half is stuck sitting in airports or on jammed highways for a day or two of real “vacation.”
Lack of a Vacation Requirement
One fundamental difference between the U.S. and Europe is that there is no legal requirement for American companies to pay for vacation. While many realize it’s a basic requirement and part of incentive package to hire qualified skill, they only offer the least amount necessary to keep operating costs at a minimum. It’s a short-sighted focus on immediate cost benefit versus long-term labor value.
Productivity Metrics Support Vacation Time
Business and political leaders of all types are the first to lambast the European labor/vacation model, labeling the approach with everything from slothful to socially poisonous. Keep in mind, the ones doing the loudest criticism often sit at the top of the company or agency hierarchy, enjoying 3 o’clock golf games and business-paid flights on a regular basis. They’re not the common worker putting in 8 to 12 hours a day for a basic wage or salary. So the criticism tends to be extremely biased by those making a profit from people working more and vacationing less.
When economist experts look at the matter, however, the viewpoint changes. Every good economist worth his salt knows no process can be maintained for any length of time without the elements of the system breaking down and needing maintenance. People are no different. They can maintain a minimum level of performance for a long time, but that’s typically not what’s desired. Full throttle performance is gold, but it’s short-term in duration, even from the best coordinated teams. As a result, economists are often tinkering about trying to define what is the edge of pushing people so that they can maintain long-term performance without burnout that makes them useless on sick leave for days afterwards.
Trickle-Down Benefits Don’t Happen in the U.S.
It’s a twist of irony that in the U.S. with its political mantra of entrepreneurial zeal and looking down on any kind of organized labor pushing for worker benefits, workers and managers alike are miserable, and in Germany where labor unions are strong and have secure heavy benefits, both managers and workers are far happier in their daily lives. Despite the promise of business success, the U.S. model doesn’t share its happiness with everyone – only a few get to realize the benefits.
Plenty of Studies Support Vacation Time
Journal after journal, and article after article, some of the most notable in the Harvard Business Review, have repeatedly focused on employee morale as the key to high productivity. And one of the big ways to predictably and reliably is vacation time. Let’s do the math: who puts out more work – the employee grinding out the hours and doing the minimum with one week of vacation, or the employee with multiple vacation breaks who is refreshed and puts out close to his maximum again and again? Even on an objective metric basis, the more-vacation model usually comes out with better results.
Business School is Teaching the Wrong Lessons
American management hates the idea of vacations because such leaders have been ram-rodded with short term cash flow targets and the demand for showing quarterly profit gains. This type of business frequently fails because it ignores long-term benefits that can sustain the company for years. Instead, chasing short-term gains for market reports every few months leads to cutting personnel, benefits, operating costs and similar when sales aren’t performing. It produces gains in “profit margins,” but then the manager has to do the same gain, cutting deeper and deeper. No surprise, the company begins to fail.
U.S. companies could learn a thing or two about vacation value if they want to be around tomorrow. That next employee’s Disneyland trip or a Taiwan tour could be inspiration for a new market opportunity.
Lindsey Patterson specializes in business technology, customer relationship management, and lead management. In addition to writing, Lindsey is a pianist, a gamer, and when her budget allows, a world traveler.