The Economist: Do people in America work more than any other country in the world?
There's a perception in some parts of the world that America is a nation of workaholics, with scant vacation days and long workweeks.
As 2013 draws to a close, many people across the country will be leaving paid time off on the table, having not found (or not taken) an opportunity to use it during the year. While some companies allow for these benefits to be carried over to the next year; in other cases, the time off is simply lost.
The fact that this happens as often as it does lends credence to the argument that we are all about work. To get past the generalities, we took a look at some studies and statistics comparing U.S. workers to their counterparts abroad.
In many parts of the world, vacation days are mandated by the government. A number of governments mandate 25 to 30 days of vacation, according to a study of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations by the Center for Economic Policy and Research.
Several also have mandatory paid holidays, up to 13 of them per year. In France, workers get 30 vacation days plus a paid holiday. In Austria and Portugal, laws specify 22 vacation days and 13 holidays. Germany came in at 20 work days and 10 holidays.
In fact, of the 21 nations studied, 16 had mandated vacation plus holiday totals of 25 of more per year. The Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada stood at 19 or 20 days, and Japan was toward the low end of the listing with 10. The very lowest nation was the United States with a zero.
This group clearly represents the most industrialized economies in the world, and mandated time off is a luxury few developing nations can afford. Moreover, this finding obviously does not mean that U.S. workers don't get vacation time, only that such time is not mandated by the government.
Instead, companies have the ability to set policies as they choose, offering paid time off as part of their benefits packages to employees. This flexibility is preferable from an economic perspective, with companies able to tailor time off as needed.
The next question, then, is how we compare on a list of total hours worked per year. The organization maintains statistics on the average number of hours actually worked per worker. This database covers far more countries - 35 to be exact.
The U.S. does not lead the pack, with 1,790 for 2012. This total is well below the averages in Mexico (2,226), Greece (2,034), Chile (2,029) and several others. The lowest average on the list is the Netherlands with 1,381, followed closely by Germany and Norway.
If you figure an average workweek of 40 hours, workers in the Netherlands work 10 fewer weeks than Americans (though it's undoubtedly actually in the form of partly fewer hours per week). In most countries, the average number of hours worked has fallen since 2000, with a drop of more than 46 hours per year in the United States.
Moreover, many professionals and executives who don't track hours on a continuing basis work well more than a 40-hour week on an ongoing basis. Some studies have suggested that (including time spent doing work on their various devices away from the office) work weeks for this group routinely exceed 55 hours per week.
One area in which U.S. workers come in near the top of the rank is productivity. The organization's database quantifies the amount of gross domestic product per hour worked; only workers in Norway, Luxembourg and Ireland have higher values than American workers. This high productivity is one reason the U.S. economy remains competitive in the global market.
Weekly hours worked varies significantly by industry and occupation and is imperfectly measured. The statistic was also depressed by the recent recession and hasn't fully recovered. Many of the most rewarding occupations tend to involve more hours, and those of us fortunate enough to have work we love don't see the extra time as a huge burden.
Even so, the fact that U.S. workers are already near the top of the global rankings of time spent on the job is a signal that can be interpreted in multiple ways. It indicates that there may not be a lot of room to move the total higher.
At the same time, having a workforce willing to clock more time per year is clearly good for American competitiveness, particularly when combined with exceptionally high productivity.
M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (perrymangroup.com). He also serves as institute distinguished professor of economic theory and method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.