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Returning to work in Europe recently after five years in the Americas, Paul Menmuir, a British native, was immediately taken aback by the vacationing habits of his European colleagues, which differed greatly from those in the continent he had just moved from. “Europeans place such importance on their long vacations,” Menmuir remarked. “And August isn’t even on the calendar in Southern Europe — it really comes as a shock.”

The United States may boast the world’s strongest economy, its most influential popular culture and biggest military, but in at least one respect life in the United States falls short of other industrialized nations: Americans enjoy less vacation.

According to a recent Expedia.com study on U.S. vacation habits, Americans were allowed an average of 16 vacation days in 2002, but most only took 14 days off, handing back more than $21 billion in unused vacation days to their employers. In most European nations, by contrast, an average of about 30 vacation days is the norm, and so are shorter work weeks.

Which side of the Atlantic Ocean is crazy?

It’s a complicated question, analysts say. The reasons for the discrepancy are mainly cultural, but also economical and political. And while most Americans would welcome longer vacations, U.S. experts point out that the extra hours Americans work are what make the country so productive and put it ahead of the rest of the world economically.

“On the American side you get this consistent envy and people saying wouldn’t it be great to have all that vacation,” said Dean B. McFarlin, a professor of international management at the School of Business Administration at The University of Dayton in Ohio. “But then you get a backhanded slap and people ask how Europeans get anything done. There’s the idea that Europe doesn’t have a rigorous work environment.”

The differences between European and American work habits are mainly cultural, McFarlin argues.

“Culturally, we have a very forward-looking and optimistic society in the United States — that’s the fundamental difference between Americans and Europeans,” McFarlin said. “We have a ‘winner takes all’ attitude here where most people believe that they can be whatever they want as long as they work hard.”

The opposite outlook is true in Europe, according to McFarlin. Take, for example, two department store managers, he said. The German manager is likely to work a 37-hour workweek with six weeks vacation. The American, on the other hand, is likely to work at least 44 hours and his vacation allowance is likely to be two weeks, said McFarlin.

“The bottom line is that Germans and many other Europeans put leisure first and work second, while it’s the reverse in the United States,” McFarlin continued. On average, U.S. workers work about 20 percent more hours each week than their counterparts in Germany, Europe’s largest economy and one of the world’s wealthiest, he said.

But changes are afoot in Germany, where the economy has slid into a shallow recession. With unemployment above 10 percent, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has proposed limited reforms to shake up the country’s costly welfare-state system, such as reducing the duration of unemployment benefits and making it easier for companies to fire people. A reduction in the average German’s 24 days of vacation a year is likely to follow, economists say.

Indeed, a recent study by the business-oriented Institute of the German Economy in Cologne reveals that if Germans worked one hour longer each week, economic growth in 2004 would be raised substantially and 100,000 new jobs would be created.

And indications show Europe is adopting American work customs, according to Paul Menmuir, who is chairman of worldwide consultancy A.T. Kearney’s executive search division. Menmuir points out that Europe’s extensive worker protection laws, which give company employees at least four weeks’ paid vacation per year, are under fire.

“There’s a lot more sympathy in Europe for having less worker protection laws so that companies can be more competitive and the labor markets less rigid,” Menmuir said. “And when you get less worker protections, people tend to get more concerned about their jobs. And those people might be less willing to take lots of time off work.”

“The big difference between Europe and America is job security,” Menmuir continued. “In America, if a business gets into a pickle it can cut down its workforce easily, but in Europe if there’s a recession it costs you big money to pare down your workforce.”

For sure, one reason why Americans are obsessed with their work is U.S. workers do not enjoy the same labor protections as their European counterparts. But job security aside, some observers say there are lessons to be learned from the European attitude to work and rest.

While the United States has the most productive work model, the downside is “a culture obsessed with being number one and putting that over quality of life” that can lead to illness and impaired performance according to Mark Norquist, a senior consultant at the employee practice of the Carlson Marketing Group.

“The U.S. has a productive workforce that is very prolific and can quickly respond to change, but the European work life has more quality to it,” Norquist said.

Barrie Peterson, associate director of the Institute on Work at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, agrees. “Rates of stroke, alcoholism, abandonment of children — we need to look at these issues too.”

“There are some very powerful negative impacts on different levels of our lives from working more and more,” Peterson continued. “It has a negative impact on psychological health: parents are not available to help in their communities and unavailable for child-rearing.”

Norquist is hopeful that Americans can adopt a more European attitude to work. “My hope is we’ll see the United States take on the best of both worlds, so we’ll be more productive in some areas but also adopt Europe’s quality-of-life attributes,” he said.

“But the truth is that as more U.S. firms expand all around the world we’re seeing overseas firms adapt a more American style of doing business, and that’s a results-driven outlook where the objective is to constantly improve your financial well-being,” Norquist said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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