Germans and Their Well Deserved Vacation

By Matthias Knobloch on Email

America is the land of entrepreneurs and hard-working business people. “Rags to riches” is the American way, after all. Stories of companies that started their success with nothing but know-how and a great amount of puritan work ethic are pervasive both inside and outside of the United States and the truism of capitalism is that the one who works the most makes the most money at the end of the day, and that this is the answer to being satisfied in life. But…really?

Europeans take a different approach when it comes to their work/life balance. The average German will work 1,436 hours in one year. Compare this to the average American’s 1,804 hours of work. One may think then that the U.S. workforce does more and is more productive, but according to recent studies, they are not. Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer from Chicago, says that Americans weren’t always this overworked. He explains that in the 1960’s, Americans spent more vacation time than they do now and many people in their 50s or 60s will tell you that they take less vacation time than their parents did.  Geoghegan believes that Germans understate their work hours, and Americans overstate work hours, and yet both countries are getting roughly the same amount of work done. This means that Germans are actually doing more, while working less.

So, this begs the question, why are Americans such workaholics?

One possible explanation as to why Germans work fewer hours/year may be that American workplaces spend more work hours on meetings among people working on a project together that drags out the lifetime of the work and view the number of hours spent working on something as a badge of honor.  In an online-based debate room of The New York Times, one American who worked as a manager in Germany described German workers as more individual and closed off, whereas Americans tend to “meet it to the death” when faced with problems, convening as a group more often to determine how to move forward.

Another possible explanation that I have experienced personally is that Germans view results as the biggest indicator of success in the workplace, while American work atmospheres are geared more towards creating an inclusive, pleasurable social experience that continues beyond working hours.  Americans tend to spend more time socializing at work, while Europeans are less social, and leave quickly at the close of the work day – contributing to an overall lower number of hours spent at the office.  This certainly applies to me: I focus on my work and try to do everything possible to finish on time and with the best possible outcome so that I can leave punctually at the end of the day.  Along these same lines, arriving at work already one minute too late gives me a bad conscience and causes me to leave home earlier than I actually need to in order to arrive punctually on time.

The largest reason, however, for Germans logging fewer hours/year at work is the allowance of vacation days.  On average, a German worker has six weeks—that’s weeks, not days—of vacation time a year. For myself, a German who lives and works in the U.S. with only half the amount of weeks available for vacations, this is a hard fact to swallow. In Germany, vacation time is a federally mandated right, a way of life. And therein lies the difference: Americans view vacation as a bonus and Germans view vacation as a necessity. The German government provides healthcare, childcare, free higher education …necessities that an average American has to pay out-of-pocket. These facts lead me to think that Germans don’t have as many things to worry about paying for each month, which allows them to focus more on things like productive work, instead of monthly expenses.

In my opinion, if you really want to be productive at work and capitalize on vacation time, make sure you’re getting stuff done. When we start to take pride in our work and view it less as a boring routine and more as an occupation, we see better results. Let’s start measuring work output by results, not by time spent in a chair. And enjoy life!

Matthias Knobloch