Tuesday, January 26, 2010

American Work Ethic: Will There Be a Backlash?

After living in Switzerland for almost four years, sometimes Americans ask me if the Swiss work hard. And all I can say is, "not as hard as you."

Maybe this is a good thing. Most Swiss people seem to work around 41 hours a week. Of course, they work harder than the French (this isn't saying much) and have less vacation than the French (doesn't everyone?). But still. I'd say on average the Swiss have a good work/life balance. Workers are guaranteed four weeks of vacation a year. And often, companies shut down completely for a week over Christmas. And the Swiss are paid much better than Americans too, on average.

Last week, I spoke with a Swiss woman who has a Swiss friend working in Miami. This friend is about to move back to Switzerland because her work load is unhealthy. "My friend even works on Saturdays," this woman told me, clearly shocked.

As I mentioned over on my blog about writing, I'm currently reading Should I Stay or Should I Go, by Paul Allen. I think nothing says more than this quote from his book, made by a software executive working in the U.S.:

"You have to work to make money to stay alive. It's a bit of a rat race. There are a lot of ambitious people. I see it with Americans--they go straight from college into a job, they work very hard, maybe 15 hours a day--and you wonder, 'is this your life?' But I don't see a lot of Americans asking that question."

Hey, Americans, are we asking this question? Do we not see that there is life outside of work? Or are we too scared of losing our jobs to revolt against 15 hour days, unpaid overtime, and weekend and holiday work? (Walmart open on Thanksgiving? Come on!) Are we Americans just wired to work, work, work, without thinking there could be a life beyond it? Please tell me there is hope. Is there?


Unknown said...

This is a good question, something I talk about a lot with friends too. I don't know that Americans are wired differently, but I think American culture is hyper competitive. We learn from a very young age that hard work is valued, and we also learn that if we don't work hard, someone else who works hard or is more eager will come along and take your place. Combine that with certain corporate cultures where you are viewed as less of a team player if you - god forbid - leave the office by 6:00 and you wind up with an awful lot of people whose lives are seriously out of balance. I also read that Americans now take even less of their vacation time than the Japanese, with a large percent not even taking advantage of their standard two weeks off. I don't think Americans WANT to work that hard (though of course there are workaholics who thrive on it) but rather fear the consequences of NOT working so hard.

Wide Eyed Gypsy said...

The worst part of being in a rat race is that you get to a state of mind where you stop thinking and questioning.... you just want to get through the week to the next weekend.

I recommend that Timothy Ferris' blog, Four Hour Workweek (http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/) - there's a lot of stuff that makes you stop and think about a different way of doing things.

Chantal said...

Hi Molly, I also read about Americans taking less vacation than the Japanese. There is tremendous pressure in the U.S. to work non-stop. It's an amazingly competitive country, something I don't think other cultures can appreciate until they experience just how hard it is to be an American worker. When I first started working in Zurich, my colleagues were amazed that I would come up with 50 ideas for one product. I just thought that was standard. They were fine with 10 ideas. So you can see the differences in work ethic.

Chantal said...


Thanks for the blog tip. I've actually been wanting to read his book too.

Amanda said...

This is a great issue to bring up... I don't think most Americans realize that there is another way to live, that is work to live instead of live to work. I know my husband and I didn't really grasp this concept until we moved to CH. Just like how the Swiss woman didn't realize how good she had it in CH until she worked in Miami, many Americans get no real taste of what they're missing out on. My husband got 6 weeks of vacation last year and this is his first job out of university!! We have decided that when we move back to the US, having 4-6 weeks of vacation will be a non-negotiable, even if it means unpaid vacation. Life is too short to be working all the time!

Chantal said...

I agree, Amanda. I was like your husband, I had no idea. In the U.S., I worked all the time. Days. Nights. Weekends. I didn't even consider another way.

Lori said...

I'm so totally against overworking I look lazy in comparison to other Americans. LOL Yet I've had to fend off pushy clients who think my weekends are for their benefit. And I freelance. I can say no. There are too many people who can't say no.

There's more, Chantal. :) We have to reclaim our lives. I won't go to ANY store that's open on a holiday. I don't care if I did forget the cranberry sauce. No one eats it anyway. :))

Chantal said...

Lori, thanks for your comments. Yes, freelancers have the advantage of saying no. I just hope they use it!

And you're right. We have to stop the insanity. I think it's great that you don't shop at stores that are open on holidays. I don't either.

Kristin said...

These are all great comments and a great post! Living through the recession of the past year, I think a lot of people were scared to take vacation/leave early/take advantage of education benefits, etc. just in order to stay under the radar. But it is funny when people from other country's tell me that they would simply die if they couldn't get 4-5 weeks paid vacation each year.

Chantal said...

I'm sure the recession has only made things worse as far as work/life balance in the U.S.

I think it's all about what you get used to. If you are used to working 15 hour days non-stop with 2 weeks vacation, it's just normal. But once you get used to 4-5 weeks it's hard to go back. Living in a different country makes you consider things back home in a different way, both goods and bads.

Globalwide Productions said...
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Emily said...

I think I have been in Europe for too long. I think 5 weeks of vacation should be a right. Just like coffee that actually tastes like coffee and affordable healthcare for everyone, but that's a whole different can of worms ;).

Chantal said...

Hi Emily,

I know what you mean. Living in Europe for too long can have its consequences.

On a side note, I didn't start drinking beer or coffee until I moved to Europe. I wonder why...

Kathy said...

Great post and discussion!

I lean towards 8 weeks as the magic vacation number myself :)

In the US, it's all about fear. Most states are "at will" (read fire at will) and most corps spin a lot of cycles to make sure their employees know just how disposable they are. Frequent stack rankings, reviews, re-orgs, and layoffs have been common for decades.

There weren't too many 2-week vacations I came back from where there wasn't a significant re-org while I was gone. One time I came left as a salaried employee and came back to the same job as an hourly at the starting rate. How cool is that?

Chantal said...

Hi Kathy,

Wow, what an experience after being gone (heaven-forbid) an entire 2 weeks!

Of course there are downsides to letting an employee go on vacation for 3 or more weeks at a time (like sometimes if the accounting department is that one person you don't get paid on time) but other than that, I'm all for 8 weeks of vacation!

Whittner said...

Hi Chantal, I think that the whole work/life balance thing is why I've stayed in Switzerland so long, why I hesitate to go back to the States. Here I learned that if you want to go to India for three months, why not? Your company will probably let you do it. However, the Swiss are extremely ambitious about their hobbies. If you're not in a Verein of some sorts, if you're not planning some extremely strenuous ski tour, mountain climb, trek through tropical rainforests, training for a marathon, then you're just not making good use of your time.

Chantal said...

Hi Whittner, yes, I have noticed that the Swiss are big into their clubs. And it's great to see so many people that are passionate and have time for things outside of their jobs.

Glad you can relate to being hesitant about going back to the States. It's my country and I'll go back eventually, but probably only to work for myself!

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