Why Overworking is Made in America and Work-Life Balance Lives in Europe

My village cashier gets more time off than you

I’ve had two exchanges in the past 72 hours that remind me that I’m straddling the two cultural extremes of work-life balance.

The first came from one of my closest friends in the States. He’s been wanting to bring his family over to Europe this fall, but vacation time was his big limiting factor.

Thankfully he just negotiated additional PTO (paid time off), he reports to me over Google Hangouts early this week.

“That’s awesome!” is my genuinely enthusiastic response (as this means we’ll get to travel together).

“How much PTO do you have now?” is my knee jerk follow-up question.

“Well, first know this is the most PTO I’ll ever get here,” he gingerly prefaces. “There doesn’t exist an echelon higher than where I am now.”

I brace myself, hoping and praying for the unthinkable. He is, after all, a rising star in his company already and well-established in the executive ranks.

“Four weeks,” the figure thuds spectacularly the second it escapes his lips.

“Four weeks?” I incredulously cough back at him. “Are you serious?” (Fortunately we’re good enough friends that my blatant expat French snobbery leaves him unfazed).


Less than 24 hours later, I’m breaking French bread with a Parisian client as she recounts how her office becomes a ghost town every May.

“It’s just like August in there,” she offhandedly remarks; my American-born mind marveling that the closest representation she can conjure up is the other month in the year where no one shows up to work.

The reason for the mass exodus, she continues, is that the French by law are required to use up their PTO by May 31st each year. “In rare cases people can negotiate a carry-over,” she explains. “Most people, however, just have to use it up by May or lose it.”

Fortunately, using PTO for the French is as popular a national pastime as not taking PTO in the States. As recently reported by the U.S. Travel Association, Americans left a record 662 million vacation days unused in 2016.

All opinions on workplace best practices aside, the research shows just how differently these two countries think when handling paid leave. Below is a graph from The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) depicting the minimum amount of vacation time employers are required to offer (by country):

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I’ve seen differing reports on France’s official minimum annual leave ranging between 25 and 30 days and between 1 and 10 paid holidays. Then you have to keep in mind that this is the minimum allowance. As my Parisian client was quick to point out, “Many people have more than the five weeks. I have a good friend for example that accumulates an additional two days per month.” Doing the math quickly, that comes out to about 10 weeks of PTO per year.

There’s no inconsistency however when it comes to the United States’ official PTO policy for employers. It’s a big, fat, ugly zero. Unfortunate side note, of the 35 member countries in the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which represents the far majority of the world’s most advanced economies, the United States is the only nation that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.

This means that my best friend Jim, with his MBA and C-level office accommodations, is guaranteed 30 times less paid vacation than the entry-level cashier at my village boulangerie in France. It’s nuts, but true. I checked with her this afternoon just to be sure. She’s a student that works Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays mornings yet still is guaranteed five weeks paid time off.

Unsurprisingly, this type of discrepancy has an impact on work-life balance. France offers its workers a “Top 3” work-life balance ranking within the OECD:

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The United States, on the other hand, manages to pull up the backend of the index, sharing a “Worst 10” ranking with countries like Turkey, Mexico, and Latvia (notice Latvia scores higher, BTW):

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With the ranking comes a host of other nasty side-effects, as noted by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in his new book Dying for a Paycheck:

“So many of these workplace practices, like work-family conflict and long work hours, are as harmful to health as secondhand smoke, a known and regulated carcinogen… We found that they account for about 120,000 excess deaths a year in the United States, which would make the workplace the fifth leading cause of death and costs about $190 billion dollars in excess health costs a year.”

It’s incredible to imagine that poor workplace policies can result in premature death, but that’s only because in the United States we’ve yet as a culture to develop a clear link between working days, stress, and longevity.

This is by no means a clear example of why the French model is universally superior. It does however point to a willingness to focus on the well-being of the individual over the well-being of the organization, which is something I doubt will take hold in the States any time soon.

In the meantime, you might consider taking an entry-level cashier position in my village’s boulangerie.


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