It was an amusing side note to the ongoing circus act otherwise known as the Republican primary race. Jeb Bush, while attempting to insult Marc Rubio for missing too many votes in the Senate during last week's debate, almost started an international incident instead. After complaining that Rubio had missed too many floor votes while on the campaign trail, he joked, "What is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?"
The attempt at humor drew a few lukewarm chuckles from the audience. The French were not amused at all. The French ambassador Gérard Araud tweeted: "A French work week of 3 days? No but a pregnancy paid leave of 16 weeks yes! And proud of it."
The fallout was apparently bad enough that, rather than hoping everyone would forget the gaffe, Bush went out of his way to apologize--with yet another joke. "I made the mistake of saying that the Congress operates on a French work week," he said. "I really did a disservice to the French."
But the biggest disservice was to all of us in the United States because in fact we would all benefit if more of our employers took a more French-like approach to work. Here's why:
1. We would stop losing so many talented women.
Most American businesses are currently configured so that you can either be an involved parent, or you can be successful at your job, but not both. Many women make the difficult choice to give up their high-flying careers in order to avoid being less than their best as parents. As Sheryl Sandberg laments in her TED Talk, many "leave before they leave," stepping off the path to the C-suite well before they ever become pregnant, because they know they'll have to quit or reduce their roles when they do.
Now imagine that they lived in a society where almost four months of maternity leave, a 35-hour work week, and 30 days of paid vacation are mandated by law--and where high-quality day care is widely available as well. A talented woman might be likelier to stay in the work force.
2. We'd use our resources more wisely.
That 35-hour work week doesn't mean that you can't ask your employees to work more than 35 hours, but you have to pay them overtime if you do. That applies to everyone, as opposed to the relatively small segment of our working population legally entitled to overtime, although that group got slightly bigger when President Obama expanded the overtime rule this summer.
I know there are employers who will disagree, but I believe paying everyone overtime when they work long hours is a good thing for one very simple reason. Right now, there's no incentive for employers to consider how to best husband their most precious resource--their employees' time and energy. If there's no disincentive, many employers (or bad managers who work for them) will simply keep piling on tasks until a disgruntled employee either refuses or quits. Since there's ample scientific evidence that productivity drops for those who work more than 40 hours a week, those unnecessarily high workloads are not doing anyone any good. But a smart employer who's obligated to pay overtime when upping an employee's workload will stop and think whether that extra work is contributing to the bottom line before requesting it. Over time, this will remove a lot of unnecessary, bureaucratic make-work from our workplaces, making them both more efficient and happier.
3. We would save on health care costs.
If the lengthy American work week--now averaging 47 hours--isn't increasing productivity, it's definitely increasing something else: employees' health problems. Even you don't care whether the people who work for you get sick or not, you probably do care about your insurance premiums, and it's likely that a company working super-long hours has a super list of health problems to show for it. You will really lose productivity if an employee winds up with a stroke, divorce, or severe substance abuse problem, any of which can result from working over-long hours.
Not only that, both you and your employees would likely wind up living longer and happier lives, since there's solid scientific evidence that working over-long hours takes years off your lifespan. And indeed, France has the fifth-highest average lifespan among wealthy nations at just over 82 years. The United States, which does not even make the top-ten list, has an average lifespan of just under 79 years.
Which means, Mr. Bush, that they are likely to have the last laugh.