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America can learn from Europe on work-life balance

By Cary L. Cooper, Special to CNN
  • Getting ahead at work is fundamental to the self image of Americans, Cooper says
  • Europeans have better employment protection and typically get up to six week's paid vacation
  • Many managers in the U.S., at all levels of an organization, like and reward workaholic behavior
  • The human body is a biological machine, and like all machines can wear out

Editor's note: Cary L. Cooper, CBE, is the Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, England. He was born in Los Angeles but has lived in the UK for over 35 years and is a dual citizen. He is recently co-authored the book "Wellbeing: Productivity and Happiness at Work."

(CNN) -- Americans have a lot to offer the world in terms of business innovation and technological advances, but they have a great deal to learn from Europeans about getting better balance between work and life.

The U.S. has some of the longest working hours in the developed world. On top of that, Americans also have some of the shortest paid vacation leave.

And although many European countries have seen increases in their working hours -- particularly the UK -- employees are typically given between four and six weeks' paid vacation time by their employer.

So what drives Americans to work such long hours and take few, if any, vacations?

One explanation is that Americans are intrinsically "workaholic." Getting ahead at work is fundamental to their self image, and to the image they like to project to their employer, and, indeed, to the outside world -- America is open for business 24/7!

And this is not only about individual behavior, but also about corporate culture.

Another explanation, which is more psychological in orientation, is that American workers are intrinsically more insecure than their counterparts in other countries.

Many European countries have better employment protection for workers, including legislation about redundancy pay, or sick leave, or hours of work, or break times at work.

Indeed, in the European Union there is the Working Time Directive that specifies that workers are not allowed to work over an average of 48 hours per week over a specified number of weeks, together with other specific constraints about breaks and length of shifts. Most E.U. countries have signed up to this Directive.

The human body is a biological machine, and like all machines can wear out.
--Professor Cary L. Cooper

In the U.S., with less employment protection and employees more vulnerable to instant job loss if they don't deliver, I suspect that many workers are frightened of taking up their holiday entitlement, as meager as it is, because they fear it sends the message that "I will not be perceived as fully committed or giving 100%."

In addition, I think many managers, at all levels of an organization, like and reward workaholic behavior. They like to see employees arriving early and staying late, not taking their holidays or if they do, contacting the office or doing their e-mails while on holiday.

Perhaps this derives from the utilitarian philosopher of the 19th Century, John Stuart Mills, who wrote about his lack of holidays: "No holidays were allowed, lest the habit of work should be broken, and a taste of idleness acquired."

Recent research is showing that consistently working long hours and not taking respite away from work, can have a damaging effect on health, and can negatively affect family life.

The notion that working long hours and not taking holidays makes for a more productive workforce is, in my view, a managerial myth, with no foundation in organizational or psychological science. The human body is a biological machine, and like all machines can wear out.

In addition, if employees don't invest personal disposal time in their relationships outside, with their family, loved ones and friends, they will be undermining the very social support systems they may need in difficult and stressful times.

As John Ruskin, the British social reformer, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution said: "In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it."

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