Why Germans Have Longer Vacation Times and More Productivity

By Glen Stansberry on 30 September 2010 23 comments
Photo: archives

It seems many Americans are born hard-wired with the belief that productivity requires time. There are no shortcuts for a good, Puritan work ethic. It's the American Way, after all. We love stories of companies who started with nothing and worked like dogs to become to become massive successes. The Sam Waltons, the Bill Gates--these are true American heroes.

Self-sacrifice has almost always gone hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship and small businesses. We're capitalists, and he who works the most makes the most money at the end of the day. Or so it would seem.

Yet Europeans have always seemed to have taken a different route when it comes to the work/life balance. Germans on average work around 1,436 hours per year, versus the 1,804 hours Americans work. With those numbers it would be easy to conclude that Americans do more, that they would be more productive in the workforce.

But we don't. Studies show that Germans get roughly the same amount of stuff done in fewer hours each week, and with more vacation time.

We Didn't Used to Be This Way

The situation with the economy hasn't helped our obsession with "hard work". With jobs becoming more scarce and tightened budgets, just keeping our jobs is a major worry for many Americans. Spending longer hours at the office might keep us off the chopping block for another day.

Author Thomas Geoghegan believes that Americans weren't always this overworked. In an interview, Geoghegan explains that in the 1960's, Americans spent more vacation time than they do now, and many people in their 50s or 60s will tell you that they take less vacation time than their parents did.

So why did we become such workaholics? And why do Germans have better productivity and more vacation at the same time?

Less Social, More Work

In the same New York Times article, another commenter noted that Americans view time as a currency in the workplace, as opposed to output. Meanwhile Germans view results as the biggest indicator of results. Americans tend to spend more time socializing at work, while Europeans are less social but leave quickly after work.

"In the U.S., hanging out by the coffee machine and having a few minutes to talk while you drink your coffee is normal. So yeah, the workday is longer in the U.S., but it is also more relaxed. Longer, however does not mean more productive. About the same amount of productive work gets done in either case."

Our American work atmospheres are considered more relaxed and more social, while German workplaces put emphasis on quality, individual work time, then leaving promptly after work.

Less Meetings

One American who was working as a manager in Germany described German workers as more individual and closed off, whereas Americans tend to "meet it to the death" when faced with problems. Oftentimes Germans will work remotely and take more time off during the day, resulting in more focused, individual work sessions that yield higher results.

It's no shock that Americans have too many meetings. We view time Germans have learned that meetings and productivity don't mix.

Federally Mandated Vacations

Germans have 6 weeks--that's weeks not days--of federally mandated vacation time a year. As an American, I can't even fathom what six weeks of vacation time would feel like.

American companies provide vacation time as benefit packages, and vacation time is a major factor in negotiating contracts. But as small business owners, we're responsible for bringing in the bottom line. There is no negotiation of contracts. Really, vacation time is seen as a bonus to meeting or exceeding expectations.

In Germany, vacation time isn't used as much as a bargaining chip or a luxury. It's a federally mandated right, a way of life. And therein lies the difference: Americans view vacation as a bonus, Germans view vacation as a necessary aspect of life.

Fear of Job Loss Isn't As Big

"How am I going to be pay for X?" is one of the first things people think about when they worry about losing their jobs. Oftentimes we'll take positions we normally wouldn't because of benefits offered by the employer.

The German government tries to alleviate a lot of these worries by providing many for free. The government provides citizens with free healthcare, free university education, and childcare. For many Americans, many of the things that are given freely to Germans are our biggest worries. Healthcare alone is a massive thing to worry about, and makes up one of the biggest cuts into our income.

Germans don't have as many things to worry about paying for each month, which allows them to focus more on things like productive work instead of monthly expenses.

Not Just Clocking In

Geoghegan believes Germans understate their work hours, and Americans overstate work hours. Yet both countries are getting roughly the same amount of work done. This means that Germans are actually doing more, while working less. This is probably because Americans tend to see long work hours as a badge of accomplishment.

In a recent study by Expedia, it was found that 31 percent of U.S. adults won't use all of their paid vacation days. In 2008 it was estimated that three vacation days were left unused for most American workers. We clearly view time spent on the clock as incredibly important. So important that we won't even take paid vacation.

Americans often see working as "clocking in", that it's enough to simply put in the hours. Which is why we're more likely to socialize at work. Often we treat it more like a social atmosphere, and less like a workplace. After all, it is where we spend a third of our day.

If you really want to be productive at work and capitalize on vacation time, block things out. Make sure you're getting stuff done. When we start to take pride in our work and view it less as a boring routine and more as an occupation, we see better results.

Let's take a cue from our German friends and start measuring work output by results, not time spent in a chair. And enjoy life!

Editor's note: Thanks, readers, for pointing out the "1436 hours per week" error. It has been corrected.

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Guest's picture

The problem is that other countries in Europe have the same mandated work hours and their productivity sucks. If we take a look at Greece we might find the American water cooler mentality and the European vacations.

Clearly you cannot mandate longer vacations and have that result in higher productivity. It is more a function of the national identity or social trends of that country.

Guest's picture

Apparently you lack reading comprehension skills. Try reading the article and also reading all the sources provided. Through multiple studies it's shown that a longer work day does *not* equal more productivity. Plus the availability of more vacation dramatically lowers the "burnout" rate. Just because the GDP is lower doesn't mean the country is worse off than the U.S. The U.S bolsters a population of about 310,430,000 while Germany comes in at 81,802,257, yet studies (as cited in the article) show they are just as, if not more so, productive than Americans. Germany beats the U.S in total $$ with regard to exports as well.

Besides, in my experience, Americans spend more time crying about their jobs than actually doing them.

Guest's picture
Mrs H

The Germans... Yeah let's really be like the Germans. Isn't that socialism????? No thanks. I'll keep my freedoms and deal with the "worry" as Jesus spoke in His Sermon on the Mount recorded in Mathew Chapter 6:25 "Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
28"So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
31"Therefore do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?' or "What shall we drink?' or "What shall we wear?' 32For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Guest's picture

Jesus is the ultimate socialist and the anti-capitalist. The more religious folks are the less they seem to understand about their religion.

Guest's picture

You obviously have a very limited understanding of socialism.

Guest's picture

IIRC, the Bible also says that if a man won't work, the community should feed him either. That ISN'T socialism.

Guest's picture

I agree with what you wrote. These people replying to you saying Jesus is the ultimate socialist are 100% wrong. Socialism is the government taking care of the things that Jesus said we are responsible for. Jesus did not tell people the government needs to take care of the poor. Jesus said we need to take care of the poor. Socialism does not rid us of the poor, but when people feel the government is taking care of things, they are less likely to do those things themselves.

I don't think Jesus ever said He was against capitalism either. Jesus made it clear that you need to serve God and not money, but He also made it clear that you need to take care of yourself. That sounds much more capitalistic than socialist to me.

Guest's picture

"1,436 hours per week, versus the 1,804 hours". How can there be more than 168 hours per week? Did you mean minutes?

Guest's picture
Guest - Bill

Let's try hours in a work year - 2080 hours equals 52 weeks, 40 per week

Guest's picture

"The German government tries to alleviate a lot of these worries by providing many for free. The government provides citizens with free healthcare, free university education, and childcare."

Uh, no. None of that is free. Someone's paying for it, unless German doctors, college professors and childcare workers are all volunteers. It'd be more accurate and less misleading to say that the German government taxes its citizens, then spends the money collected on the above services.

Guest's picture

Finally somebody who is thinking. I happen to be German. We pay much higher taxes. It is absolutely shocking how much is taken out of your paycheck each month just on taxes, health care, retirement etc. Our system works with tax classes, so if you are single, no children, you are in class I, which means, you are among those, who pay the highest amount of taxes, regardless of your income. I don't know the exact percentage, but it's so high it's maddening, you wonder why you work at all because with jobless benefits you would have more. (ridiculous isn't it?)

6 weeks vacation? No more, the government is planing to cut that down to 4 weeks a year. (yep, the Germans are angry about that), free university, no longer, we have to pay tuition as well, not as high as in the US, but enough. Daycare isn't free either, costs about 200 dollars a month per child. (when I was a kid it was free). Free health care oh no, just like in the US Military they deduct a certain amount of your income for health care, the employee pays one part, the employer another and then they still charge you co-payments at the doctors office. However, you will hardly find someone who does not have health care, if for some reason you can't pay your part (e.g. you are jobless), the government takes over. Same goes for retirement benefits, the employee pays one half, the employer the other, but believe me, you cannot live from that money once you retire and the also increased the retirement age from 65 to 68 I believe.

We also have shorter store hours, there is no such thing as a 24 hour Walmart. Store hours are usually from about 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. for grocery stores, department stores usually open at 9 a.m. and close at 9 p.m., smaller stores may not open until 10 a.m., depending where you live. On Saturdays they close sooner, on Sundays they don't open at all. Offices of any kind are usually not open on weekends.

So what makes the German more productive in less hours? I can't make that assumption that Americans are less productive, that would be so wrong, Americans are very hard workers, who put in long hours on the job and I think exactly that is the problem. An overworked employee will just lose it at some point, with that productivity goes down, due to the lack of work and private life balance. I believe that is a BIG issue in the US.

Guest's picture

We have lived in Germany for the last 5 yrs and enjoy the 6 weeks vaction every year! On the other hand the work atmosphere is less social and more formal and we miss the social part of the American workplace.
One correction I would note is that we do have to pay for part of our healthcare and our employer has to pay for the other part. It is not aid by the government so much as overseen by the government.We also pay higher taxes here.
Thanks for the great article!

Guest's picture

According to the CIA World Factbook for 2009, the USA smokes Germany in per capita GDP. In fact, we're 48 percent MORE productive by that measure.

Guest's picture

Um... a definite... typo..."Germans on average work around 1,436 hours per week, versus the 1,804 hours Americans work."

I don't work that many hours in a "week".. Probably need to modify your article to say "year".

Guest's picture

I couch surfed with a couple in Berlin and was jealous. They wake go to work at 9 and come home at 3, 6 weeks of vacation when they start a job...not this building up crap we have here in the states. Complaining that they don't have freedoms is such a laugh. The German government has 5 parties...what's more free than more choice in your representatives?

This country needs more socialism, those of you who make it into a demon monster need to experience the world before you knock it.

Guest's picture
Kay Lynn

I believe IBM has moved towards measuring output versus hours where it has resulted in higher morale and productivity. Hopefully other businesses will realize this too.

Guest's picture

Yeah right. measuring work output by results would mean that Blacks and Browns would actually get promotions--don't want that. The Germans have what you call a "meritocracy." We have not had that in America for quite some time.

Guest's picture

It's important to remember that the way of life in Europe does not revolve around the "more is better" mentality that we have in America. The reason so many Americans do not take vacations, or feel that they cannot, is because they are so incredibly reliant on their income due to being overextended on mortgages, car payments, credit cards, etc. Many people in America have spread themselves so thin by choice that if they did lose their job as a result of said vacation, many do not even have a emergency fund to fall back on.

Guest's picture

My employer gives 0 vacation days for the first year, 5 the next, and then 10 per year for up to 10 years. Frankly, I have no loyalty to them whatsoever and refuse to bend over backwards on any project. Most of the time I finish what I need to do and a a lot that I don't with no more than a few hours of work per day, then spend the rest reading up on the skills I need in order to look for better work.

Guest's picture

My great-grandparents on my father's side came to the United States from Germany, and I must have gotten that German workplace gene. I can't stand how social American workplaces are; I specifically asked to be moved to a quieter location so that I wouldn't have to hear my coworkers jabbering about their lives for half an hour at a time. Work is work, not happy hour. I sure would love a quiet, more professional workplace.

Guest's picture

Here in the Netherlands 4 weeks vacation is the minimum, I have 5 weeks. We also have about 7 holidays, 2 days for Easter, 2 days for Christmas, Queensday etc etc. At work we don't socialize very much, our lunchbreak is half an hour and we eat our sandwiches together. Most women work parttime, I work 20 hours a week during schoolhours. There are also more & more men who work parttime, my brother-in-law doesn't work on Wednesday. The children here don't go to school on Wednesday afternoon till the age of 12.

Guest's picture
Adam Lottes

I think being organized is very important…when you are organized you work more efficiently. I’m getting rid of a lot of papers around my desk at home and at work by filing them electronically using an online server. I can’t believe how much extra paper I have around that I really don’t need…I found a free version of cloud computing software at http://www.xambox.com. Remember:organization=productivity! Just start filing a few documents every day and in no time, you will be practically clutter free

Guest's picture

There is no such thing as "free" benefits. This article does not explain who pays for the German benefits. Are there differences in tax rates between America and Germany? It was my understanding that Germany had a much higher unemployment rate than America prior to the current financial mess.