Before coming over to head the digital efforts for EMEA I worked a pretty typical American work day. I was a little bit of an early bird in the office but like most people I constantly checked email all day and night. It wasn’t uncommon for me to send my last email around 11 or 12 at night and my first email around 5 or 6 the next morning (I only sleep about 6 hours a night). The last thing almost everyone said as they left work was “I’ll be on email later if you need anything.”
I rarely took vacation. I might take one week off a year and most of my vacation time was spent taking a few long weekends a year.
I wasn’t alone in my lack of vacation time. Most Americans don’t use all of their vacation. The last two places I’ve worked have had to institute a policy where you are only allowed to carry over so much vacation time from year to year. “Use it or lose it,” became the policy.
At the agency I just left they still have a sabbatical program where after 7 years of employment you earn an extra 6 weeks paid leave. Very few people I saw actually took this time as a true sabbatical, most of them used it to do work around the house they hadn’t done. A few might take a week’s worth of actual vacation.
But things are very, very different here in Europe. No one ever says, “I’ll be on email later.” When people go home, they ‘leave work’ and if you need to get a hold of someone you’ll have to call them.
When I was visiting one our partners in Finland, we were discussing American’s addiction to work and our around the clock email habits. The CEO of this other agency made the most interesting remark to me,
“If we send client emails after work, our clients call us up to see what is wrong. In Finland it looks badly if you are working a lot after hours. If you can’t get your work done during work hours you must be doing something wrong.”
If you’re an American reading this you will probably have to pick your jaw off your desk. I know I did. This is just such a different concept than the one we have in the US. And it makes sense. It made me stop and really think about all those emails being sent late at night. How many of them really needed to be sent? How many of them were people just trying to look busy or involved. How many of them needed to really be sent at all or could have waited until the next day?
But this extends way beyond our email habits. Not only do we work really, really hard all week long (I haven’t even talked about those emails sent during the weekend) we rarely ever even take a vacation.
When I took a week long vacation to Menorca, Spain it was wonderful. A whole week off on the beach. When I mentioned to one of my French colleagues that I really needed to recharge he commented that it was too bad I only took a week, you really need at least two weeks but 3 or 4 is better. I was blown away. I’ve never taken two full weeks off in my life, let alone 3 or 4. But month long vacations are not that unheard of in Europe.
Sure Europeans get a bad rap for being lazy. They take whole months off in the summer. But this isn’t just about our twisted sense of work ethic. An Atlantic article points out that not only are Americans the only nation without a national vacation policy, we don’t even use the vacation time our employers give us. And worse yet, not taking vacation is probably doing us more harm than good.
So, America is exceptional. But not wiser, perhaps. The science of productivity is pretty clear that anything from a coffee break to a two-week vacation can make us better workers by replenishing our energy and attention and allowing our brains to make new connections that are obscured in the daily grind. Even at companies that offer vacation time (the vast majority of them), Americans often don’t take advantage. We like working, or at least we’re so afraid of not working that we deny ourselves breaks that might, paradoxically, make us more productive in the long term. Are we crazy?
One of the things I’ve gained an appreciation for over here is taking some time off. When you’re off work, be off work. One of the reasons I love taking the Underground here in London is you don’t have reception. I get 45 minutes of, mostly, uninterrupted reading in to and from work. When I’m home with my family, I try and stay off email. It’s not totally possible when I’m trying to coordinate things with the US but I do a better job than I used to. And I enjoy taking vacations. Even if it’s just a weekend or day trip, we’ve really enjoyed just going somewhere and having fun.
It’s an attitude I plan on keeping when I get back.