Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

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Death by Overwork Part 2: How other countries handle the problem.

by James Porter June 11, 2021

This is a 3-part series on how Americans - partly as the result of the pandemic - are working longer hours, unable to establish boundaries between work and home life, and getting stressed out as a result. In Part 1 we looked at the problem, today (in Part 2) we will look at how other industrialized nations solve this problem and in Part 3 we will look at solutions that can be applied right here and right now in the USA.

Probably, the most influential economist of the 20th Century, John Maynard Keyes predicted almost a 100 years ago that by the 21rst century people would work a 3-day, 15-hour week. In the last installment, I wrote that here in the US, we actually seemed to be following this trend for the first three decades following World War II. As an example, I mentioned my father, who worked for General Electric his entire 35-year career starting in 1947. During his time at GE, he went from working a 50-hour, 6-day work week (with two weeks of unpaid vacation) to a 35-hour 5-day work week with 6 weeks of paid vacation. And he took every day of that vacation.

So, if you look at my father’s trajectory over the last half of the 20th century, (and the fact that available statistics indicate this was the trend for workers across the US) for a while we were clearly on a path toward working less and vacationing more. One explanation for Keyes’s inaccurate prediction is, as a British citizen, he may have been thinking more of Europeans than Americans. And in Europe they have an entirely different attitude toward taking time off than we do.

An article on the BBC website entitled: “The No Vacation Nation” explains, how when it comes to vacations, the United States is unique among other similarly wealthy nations. This quote from the article pretty much sums things up: “The United States is the only developed nation that treats paid time off as a perk rather than a right. While countries like Austria, Germany, Italy and Spain each offer their citizens more than 30 days off a year in annual leave and paid holidays, the United States offers… zero.” Yes, many of us have paid vacations, but these vacation days are not required by law as they are in other countries.

Europeans more importantly actually take (and in some cases are required to take) their days off while Americans take on average about a week of vacation every year leaving up to 50% of their paid vacation days on the table unused. Some major US companies like IBM take advantage of this tendency by disingenuously offering unlimited vacation time to their workers, knowing that they just won’t take it!

In Italy not only do they get a month of PAID vacation every year they get a 1-month bonus check to PAY for their vacation, so they can afford to GO away somewhere nice. This is known as a double PAID vacation. And practically the entire country shuts down the last two weeks of August.

The BBC article mentioned above describes an American named Edmund McCombs who moved to Australia: “McCombs’s supervisor actively tracks vacation days not to make sure he doesn’t take too many, but rather to ensure he has regular breaks. What’s more, there are employees at the company who are tasked with dreaming up ways to get workers out of the office and enjoying life.” McCombs reports he’s not planning on moving back to the US anytime soon.

In some German companies, emails sent to a worker on vacation basically just vanish into thin air. Not only does the sender get an out of office notification, the notification explains that the email won’t go to the recipient so the sender should contact somebody else at the organization if they have an immediate need. And more importantly, this way, that recipient has no motivation to check emails while on vacation. There aren’t any.

By contrast, in Japan, where the term Karoshi (translated as death by overwork) is a legally recognized cause of death, employees work long hours, perhaps even more so than we Americans. My wife worked for a Japanese trading company here in New York City where there was a mix of both Americans and Japanese natives working side by side. Japanese employees worked even longer hours than the Americans, typically coming into work six days a week and working 10 to 12 hours a day. Death by overwork is very much a reality for employees in Japanese companies both here and in Japan.

I learned about one more big difference between European and American companies when I attended a conference in Chicago of ISMA, The International Stress Management Association, which thrives in Europe and is all but defunct in the US. One of the European members there explained to me that the key difference between Europe and the US is that in Europe, job stress is considered to be the responsibility of the employer and in the US it is considered to be the responsibility of the employee. One of the ways of relieving job stress, burnout and the feeling of being overworked, is to regularly take time off. And European nations recognize this need and therefore have written that need into their bylaws.

None the less, in terms of mental and physical strain, working long hours isn’t automatically the cause of our stressful lives. And work isn’t nearly as grueling for the average person today as it was when John Maynard Keyes made his wholly inaccurate prediction back in 1930. In part 3 we will look at resilience strategies and mindset shifts that companies and individuals can put in place, right here in the USA, to make the long hours that we do work, less of a threat to our physical health.

James Porter
James Porter