The Enviable European Work Culture Of Valuing Rest & Relaxation
That uniquely American obsession with work could be costing us in other ways.
As I strolled around the storybook streets of Tallinn, Estonia, earlier this month, I took a purposeful exhale, relishing in a rare moment of being detached from my laptop, and finally free of that hamster wheel of endless deadlines that I had been on for countless months. But then my eye caught a glimpse of the time, jerking me out of my momentary travel bliss: it was 4 p.m. here, so 9 a.m. back home and I had to sign back on to crank out essential work emails.
Even being away from home, a vacation version of the Sunday Scaries was plaguing me. I had told all my clients I’d be away, yet in the back of my head, I was overwhelmed. I knew I’d return home to a fall overbooked with nonstop projects, and I was grateful of course, but with a sense of built-in exhaustion. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon for these feelings to spike this month in what’s become dubbed August Anxiety, spurred by the anticipation of reality setting in again come September.
Escaping to Europe in August had seemed like the most practical solution to tackling those feelings. After all, the one big takeaway I had learned from my French ex was that the continent pretty much goes on vacation for the month of August. Now that I was there, the logical side of my brain understood that this was the time to turn off the work switch, yet the pesky antsy side kept scolding myself for not getting ahead now. Yes, I was stressed about the possibility of being stressed.
After practically putting in an entire workday that night in Estonia, the irony dawned on me. Here I was in a country where 28 days of paid annual leave — including two weeks of consecutive time off — is legally mandated and I couldn’t even let go of my professional obligations for a single day.
Estonia is just one example of the European nations that federally requires employees to have paid time off. France famously leads the pack, requiring 30 days a year and the United Kingdom also grants 28 days, while Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Spain, and Sweden all have set a standard of 25 paid days off.
And how many paid days off does the U.S. mandate by law? Zero.
That gaping hole in our laws allows our already toxic hustle culture to keep on mushrooming. In an era of hybrid and remote work, where we can do everything everywhere all at once, we’ve chosen to take that gift and redeem even more work hours. Relaxing and recharging? Nah. We’re loyal to toil.
The European work style isn’t just about taking days off; there’s also a set of checks and balances built into the everyday pattern. Take, for example, that need I felt to pause my vacation button and send an email. Had I lived in France, that might actually be illegal. Back in 2017, the nation set into place a “right to disconnect” law, allowing workers to ignore emails outside of work hours. That’s right, not just while on vacation, but any off hours, which means those 6:01 p.m. emails legally should be marked unread until business hours start up again.
Since then Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, have also implemented similar rules, with the latter even implementing fines. The European Commission even has a European Union Working Time Directive, a set of rules of how the workdays and weeks should look. Over a seven-day period, workers aren’t allowed to put in more than 48 hours and a rest break is required every six hours. Not just that, in every 24 hour period, there must be 11 hours of consecutive rest, and in every seven-day period, there must be an additional 24 consecutive hours off.
The American answer to that? The Fair Labor Standards Act, which “doesn’t require meal or break periods.” And if lunch breaks are given, they are “not compensable work time.” It’s no wonder that 62 percent of Americans prefer to eat at our desks, according to Scripps News.
Adding to our professional masochism, those of us lucky enough to be granted paid days off don’t even take them. Yep, free paid time off dangling in front of our noses, and we prefer to put said noses to the grindstone. In fact, 46 percent of Americans don’t take all the time off they’re offered, according to Pew Research, leaving 768 million vacation days unused back in 2019, US. Travel Association, Oxford Economics, and Ipsos data showed.
The possible reason: The Pew Research survey says it’s because 52 percent don’t feel the need to take more time off and 49 percent worry they’ll fall behind if they do, with 43 percent saying there’s a guilt factor in having coworkers cover for them.
Admittedly, I know that feeling. The first year I had a job with Summer Fridays, I didn’t take a single one, even spending a couple of them in the office past midnight, when I could have left 10 hours prior! My reward: Finding out I was only making less than half of what my workers who left right at 2 p.m. those days did. (I had been told I was hired only for diversity, but we’ll save that story for another time.)
It’s baffling indeed. In so many ways, Americans earn our reputation for being self-centered and goal-oriented. But then when it comes to overworking ourselves, we suddenly use the excuse of worrying about inconveniencing our colleagues and impressing our companies? Let’s be honest, it just doesn’t make sense.
At the very least, our work ethic should mean we’re more efficient, it would seem. Nope. A past study actually showed that four European nations — Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, and Belgium — topped the U.S. in productivity. So maybe there is some truth to our overstimulated work style leading to overexhaustion and everyone’s favorite word these days: burnout.
Here’s the thing: We know the solution, and we know it’s simple. Power down our phones and our minds. Equalizing our priorities could potentially improve our lives at work and at play.
But it’s not that easy. It’s built into the American lifestyle that work comes first. Whenever I travel in Europe, I’m always surprised by the vibrant conversations I can have with locals without them every asking me right away, “What do you do?” — as is usually one of the first things asked here. For many of us, it even goes as far as feeling a sense of shame when requesting days off from our supervisors. At a previous job, I had to race to beat my coworkers to take days off Thanksgiving week — and was so stressed that I teared up when it was approved. That kind of logistical hurdle built into our professional culture is just such a “pity” as a new friend I met in Estonia said.
Yet we carry on, heads dug deep into the very thing we love complaining about. We sip our Italian coffee, we wear our Parisian fashion, and we buy our Swedish furniture, yet we can’t steal the easiest European import that would actually better our lives.