Europeans don't work hard enough. Not all Europeans, just most of them. The excessive vacation system is to blame.
I just returned from vacation in England. Well, not exactly a vacation. I spent six exhausting, wet, and windy days in Manchester, Liverpool, and London with my two teenage sons--and went to four football (soccer) matches. And from this trip, I learned a few things.
For example, I learned never to wear an Everton scarf to a Liverpool match. I learned 27 new ways to use the F-word in a cheer. I learned that most British football fans probably can't tell you what they had for breakfast that morning, but they can remember the words to dozens of the filthiest, most profane songs you've ever heard during the course of any 90 minute sporting event. I've also learned to eat before you get to the stadium or you'll be forced to choose between a very dubiously named "beefburger," or a steak and kidney pie. Trust me, starvation is a preferred course of action.
And you know what else I learned? The secret to Europe's economic problems. They just don't work hard enough. Of course I don't mean everyone in Europe. Just most people. And it's not their fault. It's the system.
For example, while in Liverpool I met up with two old British friends from college. One of them works for the British government now. And you know what he told me? He told me that he gets ten weeks vacation a year. Ten weeks! No one gets that kind of vacation in this country other than a U.S. senator, a professional baseball player, or Howard Stern. That same week this article appeared in the British papers about how the typical European Union civil service employee (translation: bureaucrat) earns 93 holidays a year. Wow.
This got me thinking. So I did a little more research. And guess what I found? Of all the countries in the world, where do you think nine of the top 10 with the most vacation are located? You guessed it: Europe. And a study released just this month from Expedia confirmed my fears: the French (big surprise) take an average of 30 days off a year, while Americans take only 10. Workers in Spain, Germany, and Denmark are on par with their French neighbors. What's more: According to Bloomberg, "countries with long vacations are not necessarily lacking strong economic performance." Really? I don't think so.
Do vacations impact productivity? Do the number of days off strain a nation's economy or output? Ask any small business owner. Of course it does. On a macro level, most of the big Euro nations have recently experienced economic setbacks, recessions, budget woes, and rioting in the streets of Tottenham and Athens. And no, not just after a local football teams lose. Europe has suffered from higher taxation, lower growth, and excessive red tape for decades, not just for the past few years. The U.S. has of course had its own share of problems over the past few years. But it's a testament to the American people that, even despite an inept government and a worldwide economic slowdown, our economy has shown amazing resilience. It's actually growing and hiring more than its European counterparts, albeit at a very slow pace. Why? We just work harder. OK...not as hard as the Asians. But we do take fewer vacation days. And it shows.
Business owners understand this. The successful ones I know take vacation, but not too much. They don't disappear for days on end leaving an "out of office" message. Particularly when we all have smart phones and tablets and can receive our emails, texts, and voice messages from anywhere we want. When I travel, which is about two to four times a month, I never leave an "out of office" message. That's because my phone system saves my voicemails and emails them to me. I also get a text message when a voicemail is left for me. This doesn't mean that I interrupt my vacation when messages come in. But I frequently check my messages, store the ones I can return later, and forward the more time sensitive issues to people in my company so they can follow-up. Like most business owners, I'm never really on vacation. Particularly when times are tough.
Of course vacations are good for recharging the batteries. And yes, getting away with your family is extremely important--and hopefully fun. And there is a valuable quality-of-life debate. I have many clients who use time away to reflect on their businesses and their lives and put things into better perspective. Taking time away from the office is a critical managerial tactic to strategize and look at the big picture. But 93 days? Ten weeks? That's ridiculous. Because there's only so much thinking you can do. Let's face it, the rest of the time you're drinking, sleeping, lying on the beach, or singing Don't Go Breaking My Heart with your significant other at a karaoke bar. Nothing wrong with that. But, in life, everything is about balance. And moderation. And three months of vacation a year is not balanced.
When it comes to their employees, the smart business owners I know treat vacation as a perk, not an entitlement. Vacations are a great way to compensate an employee. Giving people a paid day off here and there helps them recharge their batteries and appreciate life a little more. And they don't monkey with defining what a "sick" day is. You're either at work or not, so choose how you want to use your allotted days off. Special cases are of course addressed individually. By the way, requiring that employees take a vacation every year is important for internal control purposes too; ask any auditor or accountant and he or she will tell you that most acts of fraud and deception are uncovered by someone taking over for an employee who is out of the office.
I've also learned that once you give an employee a benefit it's almost impossible to take it away. So vacation should not be assumed. A minimum amount can be promised every year (increasing with years of service too) but anything more should be paid out as part of an employee's bonus and determined in an annual review. It's a perk, and it's not guaranteed. It should be appreciated and earned. Every year. It depends on how well business is doing. If business is slow, then people have to work harder.
Which is the secret to Europe's problems. Want to take a big step towards solving economic woes? Do what any business owner would do: cut back on vacation. Stop with entitlements. Take less time off! Work harder! And for God's sake, can't you come up with a few nicer songs? How about Take Me Out To the Ballgame?
GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.