Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on November 22nd, and having eaten turkey and cranberry sauce, took the next day off work as well. That is a rare break in what, by global standards, is a tough-working regime. In a typical year the average American works 100 more hours than a Briton, 300 more than a French employee and 400 more hours than a German.
The gap with Europe is partly explained by the number of days’ holiday that Americans take each year. In 2017 the average American took 17.2 days of vacation. That was a slight rise on the 16 days recorded in 2014 but still below the 1978-2000 average of 20.3 days. Around half of all workers do not take their full allotment of days off, which averages around 23 days. In effect, many Americans spend part of the year working for nothing, donating the equivalent of $561 on average to their firms.
In the European Union, workers are guaranteed by law a minimum of 20 paid days of holiday each year, with public holidays in addition to that (there is no mandatory minimum in America). The workers who can put their feet up for longest are those in Spain and Sweden, who get 36 days of holiday each.
It is true that Americans do well in terms of public holidays; they have ten, two more than workers in Britain. But that doesn’t make them relaxing. In both 2015 and 2016 the Sunday after Thanksgiving was the busiest day of the year for air travel. After a cramped flight and a long wait in the security line, workers may end up feeling worse than if they had never left the office.
Americans also put in more hours per week. This was not always so. In 1870 the average European worker toiled for almost 66 hours a week, and those in America averaged 62. By 1929 there was little difference between the continents, with European hours at 47.8 and American ones at 48. By 2000 American males were well ahead, grinding out 43.3 hours against a European average of 39.2 (the female gap was smaller, at 37.2 to 36.1 hours).
At some point after the war Europeans decided to take more time off, while Americans opted (or were persuaded) to keep their shoulders to the wheel for longer. A survey by Project Time Off found that the main reason why Americans are reluctant to take all their vacation is fear of being replaced. Other factors are heavy workloads and lack of cover from fellow employees. One useful feature of public holidays is that workers worry less about bunking off if everyone else does the same.
Forgoing holiday time does not always please the boss. A study by the Harvard Business Review in 2016 found that those who took 11 or more days off a year were almost twice as likely to get a raise or a bonus as those who took ten days off or fewer (although the causation could be the other way around; star workers may feel they can afford to take a break).
Nor do extra hours automatically lead to higher productivity. An analysis of figures from the OECD, in 2013, found a negative correlation between gdp per hour and the number of hours worked across member countries. Again, the causation is unclear—workers in richer nations may feel they can take more time off. But there is plenty of other evidence.
A study of munitions workers in the first world war found that their output per hour tended to decline once they spent over 50 hours a week toiling. The Institute for Employment Studies in Britain reviewed academic research on the subject and concluded that “long hours working [more than 48 hours a week] was associated with (but was not proved to cause) various negative effects, such as decreased productivity, poor performance, health problems, and lower employee motivation.”
The danger is that long hours simply lead to wasted effort. C. Northcote Parkinson, a management theorist, wrote that “work expands to fill the time available”. Every editor knows that many journalists only deliver their articles when the deadline is imminent. Workers may be staring at their computers, but how many have disappeared down the rabbit hole of Twitter spats?
The modern world is supposedly moving in a direction where routine tasks are automated, leaving the more creative processes to the humans. And humans are undoubtedly more creative when they are not feeling tired or jaded. So enjoy the break, American workers, and maybe take the next week off as well.