Americans Work Too Hard


It would appear (from a European) that Americans work much too hard. Apparently only getting something like 12 holiday days a year, compared to our French neighbours who take whole of August off !

Why is that, when the dream from the sixties was that technology would give us more leisure time, not less. Do we all want to end up like Elon Musk ?

Comments (58)

58 responses to “Americans Work Too Hard”

  1. Polycrastinator

    Well, I wouldn't call it working too hard, just working too many hours. I think it's a cultural thing, longer hours/fewer vacations is taken as a sign of dedication, and because of that, the people who do that get promoted to management positions and enforce those expectations on their subordinates. The evidence here is overwhelming: working more than a 40 hour week reduces productivity (to the point where if you're much over 50 hours, you're not contributing anything, and over 60 you actually have a negative impact on productivity because of the number of mistakes you make), but it's still demanded of workers. Similarly, vacations. The person who takes less gets promoted, and my experience is that management simply does not believe the well documented and proven phenomenon that vacations increase overall productivity.

    Honestly the only fix to this American problem I think is legislation enforcing shorter hours (or at least forcing prohibitive overtime payments to discourage long work weeks) and fines for companies where employees do not take all their vacations (as well as increasing the number of vacation days and forcing a separate sick time pot - it's really common to see vacation and sick time coming out of the same pool here, so if you're off sick for a week say goodbye to your vacation), and other measures like that. It would be saving American companies from themselves, the evidence is clear they'd benefit from it, but virtually none implement those policies.

    Sorry, rant over. This is something I feel really strongly about.

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to Polycrastinator:

      It would require a massive set of laws and programs akin to the New Deal to legislate this issue.

      There would have to be national minimum wage laws that combine with laws about minimum and maximum hours, to prevent employers from simply cutting hours to make up for the difference.

      There would have to be laws surrounding corporate political donations (they should be summarily banned.) And of course comprehensive campaign reform.

      But no Washington politico would ever imagine doing things like this, since the sweet payola is why they’re actually there.

      • Polycrastinator

        In reply to jimchamplin:

        Honestly, I think this whole "we'd need to get rid of corporate political donations," thing is a red herring. We already have a party that's in favor of these sorts of changes. Perhaps not to the degree I'd prefer, but they're on board generally, and there's a different party which opposes. It's not the donations that are the problem, it's that one party is intractably against any sort of regulation of business.

    • wright_is

      In reply to Polycrastinator:

      That sounds a lot like European legislation you are promoting there.

      Vacation != sick. If I am sick during my vacation, I go to the doctor, get a sick note and pass it to the company and my vacation days for the period I was sick are re-instated (there are some exceptions, such as if it is a self-inflicted illness or injury - going skiing and breaking a leg wouldn't be covered, getting the 'flu or similar would be covered.

      • Polycrastinator

        In reply to wright_is:

        I think the sick/vacation thing is particularly egregious. I have combined sick and vacation time, if I'm sick, that means less vacation time. It really incentivizes employees to come into work when they're ill so they don't lose other time off, which is just not something you want employees to be doing. But again, really common.

        • wright_is

          In reply to Polycrastinator:

          Yes, the attitude here is (generally), we don't want you here, if you are ill. You could infect other people, you can't concentrate or you aren't fully mobile.

          But the medical insurance subsidises the full wages for the first 6 weeks of illness (based on how much the employer contributes), then you get a reduced amount, which is paid solely by the medical insurance company. So the employer only has to pay part of your salary for the first 6 weeks, the insurance pays the difference.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to Polycrastinator:

      Wow what a bunch of socialists here in this thread. If Americans want to work 50 hours a week I say let them. We don't need the government to say no you can't do that. No one is forcing you to take a job that makes you work longer than you want to. You can always quit and go work somewhere else.

      You also have to look at the outcomes of Americans work habits. It's no mistake that Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and so on are all based in the US.

      • Polycrastinator

        In reply to lvthunder:

        Everywhere, in my experience, is like this. "Go work somewhere else" only works if there's somewhere else with better conditions to go work. The problem is in the US this is near universal. That's precisely why I said this is a cultural problem. The evidence is that it's bad, but most companies do it anyway. Government is there precisely to protect you, the citizen, from predatory entities. They should do their job.

        • lvthunder

          In reply to Polycrastinator:

          If you can't find the working conditions you like you have two choices. Change professions or start your own company where you can create the work environment you want. If your company has better working conditions you will end up with the best employees and will be able to beat your competition.

          It is not predatory to work someone the amount of hours they are willing to work. Some people get to where they depend on the overtime money. There are exceptions to this though and they are regulated. Truck drivers by law can only work a certain amount of hours. That's different because it becomes a safety issue

      • jules_wombat

        In reply to lvthunder:

        Well yes, at the risk if getting into a political debate, 'socialism' is considered a bad word in the US. Whereas over here in Europe we have longer vacations, working time directives (which some 'heros' opt out) minimum wage and social benefits systems.

        But as you say, the great big Tech Giants come from the US, and it is especially in those companies where excessive working habits is presumed. I started this thread in response to the Elon Musk situation, admitting that he works excessive hours, missing out on personal stuff, but sees it as being necessary to run his great endeavours. Meanwhile in Europe most of us are on still on holiday in August.

        Not many people on their death bed wished they spent more time in the office. So who are the fools here ? The American work ethic or the 'easier' European 'socialist' model. (including Germany)

        • lvthunder

          In reply to Jules_Wombat:

          Actually socialism is gaining traction here in the US. I don't think it's a bad word. It's just not as good of an idea as capitalism is when done properly.

          • wright_is

            In reply to lvthunder:

            Capitalism and communism are opposite sides of the same coin. They are both at the extremes of social acceptability and neither has a very good track record.

            If they were implemented properly and ran as per their ethos, then both systems could provide a perfect world to live in. But they both have one huge, insurmountable problem, the systems rely on humans to run them and humans cannot manage either extreme right. There is too much greed, megalomania and psychosis in those that gravitate to leading these companies or countries.

            To use a couple of historical quotes:

            "Power attracts the corruptable."

            "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."

            Both of those apply to communism and capitalism, and pretty much any other form of centralized power.

            I look at large companies making large profits and think: if a company can afford to sponsor a sporting event / team, make large commercials or bank obscene profits, then their products cannot offer good value for money. On the other hand, a company that is struggling to make a profit is probably not going to be there next month. There needs to be a happy middle ground.

            One of the biggest problems facing capitalism at the moment isn't the ideas behind capitalism, but the short term thinking. In the past, people made businesses to last, they would work their whole lives for a company and hope it does well enough that it is still going when they retire and their pension fund will be worth something.

            In the current climate, companies can't really look to the future, at least not publicy listed ones. It is irrelevant if they have plans for the next 10, 50 or 100 years, if they can't increase profits for the next quarter, they have failed and people bail on them. This is completely the wrong attitude towards business. We shouldn't be looking at making the biggest profit in the next quarter and selling the shares to some other mug, before the pyramid collapses, we should be looking at the companies plans for the future and rewarding those companies and penalising those that only think about the next quarter.

            But we are stuck with the "human problem", most humans, especially greedy humans, can only think about the now, they want instant gratification and the media is pushing this in every thinkable form, the capitalistic system is its own worst enemy at the moment.

            I'm not saying socialism is the right answer, but it is at least, at our current time, more balanced. There are checks and controls to try and stop businesses becoming too poisonous to the population that supports them - take a look at climate control, the "whole world" came together and agreed, that whilst climate change is real and it can't be proven that humans are solely responsible, it is recognized that we have an effect on it. Therefore we should work forward to reducing our influence on it as much as possible, to slow it down, whilst solutions to the problem are found, or life can adjust to the phenomenen.

            (Just look at the situation in Europe at the moment, due to the prolonged, excessively hot summer, fish have been dying off in lakes and rivers, because the water has become too hot and hot water cannot contain enough oxygen for the fish to breathe. They have been pulling dead, rotting fish corpses from the lakes by the tonne. The same is true of coral reefs, they are a delicate balance, but due to rising water temperatures they are dying out.)

            The problem is, a lot politicians didn't want to agree to the changes needed, because it would cost them money, but more importantly, traditional big businesses, like the coal and oil industries would be affected and they would lose a lot of money. That is bad for the companies, bad for jobs, bad for lobby money, bad for the politicians.

            Likewise, the emerging markets, like India and China, which still have large coal reserves were saying that they have these reserves, it is cheap and, hey, the West has used coal for the last 150 years, why shouldn't we?

            But even Al Gore* didn't come up with the obvious argument, that we have since learnt that coal is bad and we shouldn't use it, where we can find an alternative. Nobody looked at the problem from the obvious angle: those traditional industries might decline and / or die out, but you need new industries to replace them, their product can't just be replaced by air, you need to make alternatives - wind farms, solar panels etc. those are better skilled, better paid jobs. Instead of talking about areas of investment, job retraining etc. they just looked at the losses of jobs in the traditional industries.

            Just imaging if the horse and buggy lobby had been as big as the oil and coal industries, the internal combustion engine, steam engine and electric engine would never have gotten a foothold, we would still be going round on horseback today!

            But we now have the situation where relatively few businesses and industries have undue sway on the economy and on politicians - just look at Trump, instead of looking at what is good for his country's future, what is good for his citizens, he walks away from the climate change agreements and will support the coal industry.

            In Europe, on the other hand, whilst we have big business, we also have a social contract between the goverments and their citizens. The governments are there to ensure the wellbeing of their citizens, protecting them from themselves, from external threats and internal threats, whether they be from other countries, terrorists or businesses out of control. It isn't perfect and the "American corruption" seems to be slowly drifting across the rest fo the world.

            * And no, I'm no Al Gore fan, I just happened to see his new film last week, so it is still fresh in my mind. I'm not an eco freak, I don't just eat bio (wholefood?) products, but I do try and avoid waste, excessive use of plastic etc. because I recognize that we are destroying our environment.

        • wright_is

          In reply to Jules_Wombat:

          I always find it interesting that people claim a good work/life balance is a bad thing.

          You couldn't pay me enough to work in the USA, with its current labour laws, sorry labor laws.

        • lvthunder

          In reply to Jules_Wombat:

          Elon is choosing to live that life. No one is forcing him to work those crazy hours except himself. He's a control freak. He could hire people to help him, but he doesn't want to do that. In the US he is free to do so. Part of freedom is being able to do something stupid.

          Would I personally do that. No I wouldn't. I very rarely work over 40 hours a week. Like maybe once or twice a year. In my company we work Monday-Thursday 7-5 and from 8-12 on Friday so I get a two and a half day weekend every week.

  2. Greg Green

    I remember watching some show about indigenous Amazonians who spent half the day in their hammocks. I thought How can they have so much leisure time when they don’t have a single microwave, smartphone or escalator. It just didn’t make sense. /s.

  3. lordbaal1

    And who's paying for you to take off that whole month?

    Just look at how much taxes are there.

  4. lordbaal1

    How much time is spent BS'ing.

    I can get my work done faster then my co workers. Because I don't BS.

    If I don't have to ask you a question, I am not talking to you.

    I don't care have you day is going. I don't care how you kids are doing. I just don't care about you of your life.

    Unless you are a woman.

  5. Jeffery Commaroto

    Americans work to sustain the lifestyle we want. One filled with material goods, mobility, a lot of food, non-stop entertainment and “opportunity” for kids in the form of activities and experiences. It costs a lot of money to sustain that lifestyle and many spend far more money than they have or will make trying to achieve or maintain it.

    I hear a lot of complaints from people in the US about working too much but I rarely encounter anyone who would be willing to massively downsize and embrace a different lifestyle or abandon the pursuit of a “better life” as we define it.

    At the end of the day I think it’s nice that Europeans, Chinese, Russians, Americans and the like all live the way they prefer and pursue the life they want in their own way.

    • ejuly

      In reply to j_c:

      I doubt you have been to China or Russia they are both more about material goods than we are in the USA. In China or Korea the goal for parents are to prove their kids do not need to work and that they can go to school out of the country. Russia is all about the flash, just check out all the new cars. The average age of cars in Russia is about 1.5 years than in the USA.

    • wright_is

      In reply to j_c:

      And you think that Europeans don't want similar things? They just want to enjoy them, and kids' education is very cheap here, it cost just a couple of hundred Euros per semester to go to university, for example.

      Working long, unpaid hours is not helping you to enjoy life or get more money or time to enjoy your life.

      There is a big difference to working hard and being abused. People in most countries work hard and are productive, but they get compensation and free time. The employers are not allowed to abuse their workers. If you work long hours one month, you have to work less the next, to ensure you don't exceed the legal maximums.

  6. skborders

    Too much, yeah, too the detriment of all else. Too much mental drain, worry and stress, absolutely. Too hard, nah.

  7. jimchamplin

    And our overlords just say, "Work more. Don't worry, we won't pay you enough to survive, just work more. Remember hard work is all it takes to fulfill your personal responsibilities. Work more. More work equals more work and work is good."

    • bharris

      In reply to jimchamplin:

      And with mobile phones & email, you are now EXPECTED to be available 24/7 in many jobs. And it isn't just mission critical jobs. It is like the CFO says "I wonder about..." on a Sunday morning and a mid level manager just freaks and starts contacting their people to get the info ASAP to impress them.

      I have worked in IT my entire career but I think there might be something to be said for the assembly line worker or UPS driver that works hard but at the end of their shift, they can walk away and be left alone.

      • wright_is

        In reply to bharris:

        Many employers now have a policy that company phones are not to be used outside of business hours.

        Volkswagen actually turn off access to email servers outside of business hours.

        My current employer has a policy of no email on private devices and business devices should not be checked outside of business hours, unless agreed to in advance, e.g. server maintenance evening's or weekends, which has occurred twice this year.

        • maethorechannen

          In reply to wright_is:

          Where I work it's the exact opposite, where they're now encouraging people to access email (and the rest of office365) on private devices. Especially the phone (though using the phone does mean surrendering some control of it to them).

          I wouldn't say there's an expectation that you'll check your email at all hours, but a lot of people do,

        • bharris

          In reply to wright_is:The company that I worked for actually did away with company phones and offered to pay a portion of the monthly charges of your personal cell. Sure, no one is going to force you to look when the phone vibrates and it is on your work account but most people do....

          • wright_is

            In reply to bharris:

            Most of us have 2 phone, private and business, at my current employer. And with them moving to ban personal messaging apps from company phones, even more are getting a private phone to continue chatting to their friends.

            Due to GDPR, the company won't let any company data on non-company devices. End of story.

            And no "private" apps uploading company data to third party web services - E.g. WhatsApp. That means, either no company contacts on the phone or no WhatsApp (or turn off the uploading of contacts to WhatsApp, which means you can't add new chats and when somebody messages you, you only see their telephone number).

      • lvthunder

        In reply to bharris:

        Not in the industry I work in. I'm a civil engineer. Maybe if you are in IT you might need to be available 24/7, but that should be decided when you are hired with the appropriate amount of compensation.

  8. ejuly

    American's ( USA citizens) work more hours - but it is not clear that we are working harder.

  9. harry105

    I think the way I'd put this is that many Americans don't work well, or optimally.


  10. Paul Thurrott

    I think the way I'd put this is that many Americans don't work well, or optimally.

    • wright_is

      In reply to paul-thurrott:

      I'd have to agree, unfortunately.

      One of my employers used German, Polish and Rumanian welders for its equipment in Europe. They had a project in the USA and had to use local workers. They calculated twice the amount of time and a much higher budget (US workers were a lot more expensive), but the project took over 3 times as long - the quality of the welding was also way below what the company expected and much of it had to be redone.

    • spacein_vader

      In reply to paul-thurrott:

      Agreed. Americans don't work too hardz they work too long.

      In my experience over the pond the ones that are present in the office the longest achieve the least.

    • Greg Green

      In reply to paul-thurrott:

      Didn’t know your comment was the original, or that this was an old post. Regardless it was wrong four months ago and is still wrong.

      French per capita gdp, $38,476.66 USD (2017).

      US per capita gdp, $59,531.66 USD (2017).

      EU per capita gdp, $37,400 (2018).

      Our friends to the north (Canada) per capita gdp, $45,032.12 USD (2017).

      It must be that great North American water or air.

    • lordbaal1

      In reply to paul-thurrott:

      What do you know about work?

      You sit behind your desk all day. Go on free trips to company events.

      When was the last time you had a 9-5 job?

  11. wright_is

    Because Europe bases its laws on protecting people from Big Business, whereas the USA seems to be hell bent on protecting Big Business from pesky citizens...

    I always thought Frank Herbert (Dune series) had it right, the first sin was corruption by a politician / civil servant and the second sin was attempting to corrupt a politician / civil servant, both punishable by death. But that would create a huge slump in house prices in Washington as they all suddenly came on the market as their previous owners have been executed or disappeared... :-P

    My current employer also has the policy that off-hours are off-hours and you shouldn't check emails, go on the company phone etc. unless there is pre-arranged out-of-hours cover for a certain situation (like a server upgrade at the weekend). Although we were instructed to do the last VMWare ESX and vCenter upgrades during normal business hours.

    At my previous employer, there was an overtime account, you should try and keep overtime to a minimum, but when you reached 50 hours, you had to take the time off.

    What I find really good is that my employers for the last 5 years have had "Hansafit", which is a system of centrally administered fitnees. You sign up, the subscription is taken out of your gross salary every month, before tax(!) and you can go to any fitness center that participates. It currently costs me 15€ a month.

    EU law also sees a maximum of overtime, you cannot exceed a 48 hour week average over a rolling 6 week windown. That means you could, for example do a project implementation and work a 90 hour week, but for the 5 previous weeks or the next 5 weeks, you cannot acrue much overtime, because it would tip you over the 48 hour average for that period. Exceptions can be arranged, but there are strict rules about it and everybody has to agree, the company can't force it on you without the works' council agreeing to it.

    For example my daughter's employer had a broken piece of equipment (fire) and had to replace it, which would take 4 months. It was agreed that the employees would work a 7 day week (7 on, 2 off, 7 on) to compensate, but they would then get extra time off, once the new machine was up and running.

    • jwpear

      In reply to wright_is:

      Does this law create incentive for European companies to outsource work to skirt the capacity constraints or does it incent them to hire more people? I have a feeling it would have the outsourcing effect here in the US because it would be crafted in a way that allowed such loopholes for big business to skirt the capacity issues that excessive work restrictions might create. And outsource would be defined quite liberally so that the work might go to another US-based company or off-shore. This would give big business a way to say, "Hey, we're in compliance" and the politicians a way to say, "Hey, this policy doesn't incent businesses to send work offshore. That's just the market's free response."

      If find the way these sort of things work and the intended/unintended consequences to be interesting.

      • wright_is

        In reply to jwpear:

        Outsourcing does happen - and it is often the big US suspects that do it (E.g. Amazon, Google), but others do as well. Helpdesks get outsourced in many places, for example.

        But a lot of businesses are either reliant on local resources (shops, local services etc.) or skilled workers.

        In my experience, Germans, for example, work hard and want to produce the best quality they can, at least at the local level, once you get to the big multi-nationals, are another matter. But the workers are very well paid, but produce high quality products at relatively high speeds. The holiday and pay compensations are good and they enjoy their offtime.

        Certainly in startups following the "American" model and some multi-nationals, the outlook is different, they have to keep within EU laws, but it is expected that you have the company phone with you and check your emails outside of business hours, but those aren't working hours, so they don't count... Up until recently, a lot of people have put up with it, but the attitude seems to be changing.

        (I'm an ex-pat Brit living in Germany).

  12. Chris_Kez

    The latest "innovation" here is so-called unlimited vacation. Take as much time as you need to recharge, as long as you're getting your work done. Of course, in reality everyone will take the same or fewer vacation days.

  13. karlinhigh

    Americans work too hard or too many hours? Conceded for sake of discussion.

    Now do the Japanese, too:

  14. curtisspendlove

    As an American who is getting older I completely agree.

    Luckily I’m to the point where I have enough experience to (for the most part) pick the companies / teams I work for / with.

    These are are the kinds of discussions I have with the developers I mentor. This problem is very bad in the development sector.

    The company I currently work for has limited vacation accrual (as incentive to use it “use it or lose it”) and the managers make sure we clear the way for our teams to take their allotted time (and to help each others’ teams).

    The other common problem is in order to take vacation, you feel pressured to work extra to “wrap up” current stuff so you aren’t just stressed during your vacation.

    And when you come back there is often a metric crap-ton of extra stuff to “catch up” on. I try to encourage my team to help each other out in these regards.

    We make *awesome* stuff and I’m very pleased with our work. But if you don’t have anyone you love around to celebrate those victories with you, is it really worth it?


    (Incidentally, the OP’s profile pic is freaking adorable. As an ignorant American I’m just going to assume it is a “wombat”, but I’d like to know—and so would my wife and daughters.)

  15. NoFlames

    America didn't rise to the top in less than 200 years by being lazy. It's a cultural norm to work hard.

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