Need a haircut? Sorry, everyone is 'en vacances'

BRUSSELS — "I’m told that in Brussels, the word 'August' doesn’t exist — the summer months here are June, July, Les Vacances. So it’s nice to see all of you today." That’s how new NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen began his first meeting with journalists earlier this month, either feigning surprise or truly not expecting to see several dozen reporters present in the NATO auditorium.

Of course the Dane couldn’t begrudge any scribe who didn’t show up; he comes from a country where people get an average 30 days a year of paid vacation.

While he was joking, he was barely exaggerating. Day-to-day business in Brussels, as in the numerous international institutions it hosts, downscales dramatically in August. A frequent response to a request for whatever one might need — from information on the economic downturn to a haircut for a toddler — is an unapologetic shrug that it’s simply not possible to help because everyone else is "en vacances."

How do all these people in all walks of life earn so much vacation?

It’s all part of the job. Any job. Every job. Thanks to what’s called the Working Time Directive, no employee in the European Union has to make do with fewer than 20 days of paid vacation each year — not counting religious or national holidays, which number more than a dozen in some EU countries — as long as they work at least 25 hours per week. In many countries, that minimum is considerably higher: workers must be given at least 25 vacation days in Austria, Denmark, France, Luxembourg and Sweden, 24 in Malta and the United Kingdom.

What people usually end up with is even higher than that, according to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound). Eurofound figures show Sweden leading the pack with an average of 33 paid days off, followed by Denmark and Germany, tied with 30, then Italy and Luxembourg, each with 28. Workers in the newer EU member states (NMS12) tend to come out on the shorter side, but only those in Cyprus and Estonia end up with the lowest legal level.

(Credit: Eurofound)

Meanwhile, across the pond, Americans remain the only citizens of an industrialized country with no legal right to employer-financed R&R and about a quarter of the U.S. workforce doesn’t receive any, according to estimates by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

This May, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson introduced the "Paid Vacation Act of 2009," an attempt to require U.S. companies of at least 100 people to give a minimum one week of paid leave per year. If passed, that level would rise to two weeks within three years after enactment. At that point, enterprises of at least 50 people would also be required to offer at least one week of paid leave.

A movement called "Take Back Your Time" has been explaining to Americans why they should support the legislation, using phrases like "time affluence," "time poverty," "time stress" and factoids like this:

  • Americans are twice as likely as Europeans to suffer from anxiety and depression, and many experts believe these deficits are caused by lack of time;
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works one month (160 hours) more today than in 1976; and
  • Companies that have adopted the vacation benefits endorsed here have dramatically increased productivity and profits.

In Europe, with that battle long behind, employee representatives like Brian Synnott of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) are pushing on, trying to bring down further the number of hours Europeans are actually working, which stands at 38.6. EPSU, which represents workers in a wide variety of sectors including health care and public utilities, wants to “make sure that this myth — that (a shorter workweek) has an impact on productivity — is completely exploded,” Synnott explained.

Though the legal maximum workweek in the EU is 48 hours, there is currently an “opt-out” mechanism that allows employers and employees to agree on longer shifts if they wish. His group and its umbrella organization, the European Trade Union Confederation, are trying to get rid of the “opt-out,” claiming it contributes not just to unemployment by keeping workers on long shifts, but also to a degradation in health and safety of the wider public due to fatigue and burn-out.

The employers’ side contends that the “opt-out” should be left alone, to give workers the freedom to take on more hours if they choose.

But employers might want to take a look at how well the more work/less play model turns out for them. A statistics snapshot from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that, of the EU countries, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are all outperforming the U.S. when it comes to GDP per hour worked. Luxembourg outpaces the U.S. by an astounding 27 percent in this category — with an average of 28 days of paid leave.