The Real Reason the French Work Less Than Americans Do

Jan 03, 2017

When the French government instituted a policy that will allow employees to disconnect from work email while they're not in the office, effective at the start of 2017, many American workers may have looked across the ocean with jealousy.

Though the new French law doesn't set any hard-and-fast rules, it's designed to help workers limit the amount of time that work email infringes upon leisure time. It's just one example of the many labor laws and norms—from regulations that control actual hours worked to policies about paid parental leave—that tend to leave European workers with a more even work-life balance than their U.S. counterparts experience.

For instance, in 2015, the French worked an average of 1,482 hours a year, while American workers worked about 1,790 hours, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Meanwhile, U.S. workers—who receive about 15 days off per year—also get less vacation time than their European counterparts, who get about 30, according to a 2015 survey from Expedia.com. What's more, while American employees take about 73% of their allotted vacation time, German and French workers take nearly all of the vacation time they're allowed.

But how did the worker experience in these two regions get so different in the first place?

Some have argued that European culture is generally more inclined toward a leisurely pace than American culture is. However, the cause of that laid-back French workplace culture is about more than just some vague notion that relaxing is good. As TIME has previously reported, Americans used to believe that their own time spent at the office would decrease over time:

Factory output per worker jumped more than 40% from 1919 to 1925, and even the Great Depression would be only a blip in the broader trend. World War II’s wage-controlled labor market compelled employers to offer better benefits to recruit workers. By 1961, a FORTUNE story heralded “The Expanding Vacation”; the piece suggested that organized labor had become sufficiently content with wages to a point where union leaders instead sought ways for workers to enjoy those wages. The United Auto Workers even founded a program whereby it would charter flights to Europe, Hawaii and Mexico for workers. A 1968 law moved several date-fixed federal holidays to Mondays, creating the modern three-day weekend.

But by the 1970s, the steady decline in the average length of the American workweek reversed itself. The decade brought a rise in consumerism that coincided with a slowdown in economic growth, forcing Americans to work more hours just to maintain an ill-considered standard of living, argued sociologist Juliet Schor in her 1992 book The Overworked American. We had volunteered to exhaust ourselves.

Meanwhile, until the 1970s, French employees worked more hours than Americans did.

The reversal can be traced to union and collective-bargaining contracts, says Bruce Sacerdote, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College who has studied workplace trends in the U.S. and in European countries. As unemployment rose in France in the 1970s, French unions responded to the economic trouble in a way that was very different from the response to slowing growth in the U.S.: they advocated a policy of work sharing, in which individual workers' hours would be reduced in response to the increasing number of people without jobs. Using catchphrases like "work less, work all," they argued that society would benefit if the same amount of work could be done by a greater number of workers, with each working less.

These attractive policies caused the unions to become stronger and represent more workers. Eventually, they secured valuable time off — which, by the time the economic downturn had passed, had become the status quo in France. Once workers were given several weeks off in August, for instance, they understandably didn't want to later give up that prized vacation time.

That situation also led to what Sacerdote called a "coordination benefit." France, for example, has 25 federally-mandated vacation days, allowing most employees in the country to be off at the same time. That way, productivity doesn't suffer in the same way that it would if people staggered their vacation days.

"It led to a general feeling that this was a good thing, that they wanted to be off at the same time," Sacerdote said, comparing that plan to the informal break that tends to occur between the Christmas holidays and New Year's Day in the U.S.

And experts say that coordination is not the only benefit of the French method. Though the U.S. is more productive than France in terms of output per worker and income per capita, France's policies are not making the country lazy. Instead, taking a liberal amount of time off—and fully disconnecting when they do so—tends to make people more productive during the hours they're actually on the clock, Sacerdote said.

"Almost as much productivity can happen, but within a defined set of hours," Sacerdote said. "It's setting an expectation; people don't feel like they have to be checking email."

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