Are You A Workaholic? Why We Work So Hard & Don’t Take Vacations

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2012-04-0629

Do you take enough time off? Take a break and find out why we work so hard.

So who are you calling fat and lazy? While some people may be quick to judge Americans this way, I’d rather think of us as hard-working and productive. And there are actual studies that back this up. To find out just how industrious a group we are, I compiled a few facts that tell us a bit about our work behaviors and mindsets.

How Long Is Your Work Week?

Let’s take a look at how these different developed countries stack up against each other when it comes to working hours. These are the percentages of workers from various nations that work over 48 hours a week, an amount that is deemed excessive by the International Labor Organization.

  • Japan: 39.3%
  • United Kingdom: 25.7%
  • Israel: 25.5%
  • New Zealand: 23.6%
  • Australia: 20.4%
  • Switzerland: 19.2%
  • United States: 18.1%

Among developing nations, the percentages are significantly higher. Not surprisingly, a 48 hour work week is also standard in certain countries such as Peru, Thailand, Ethiopia and Pakistan. A few other developed countries such as Switzerland and Israel have work weeks that go beyond 40 hours, while France has the shortest week of all, at 35 hours. Not only that, but they also have tons of vacation time. So here’s a trick question: would you consider moving to France now? ;)

working businessman

No, We Are Not Lazy

Seeing that a good percentage of us still works more than the standard 40 hour work week, I’d say we have a pretty good work ethic and I’d have to disagree when someone out there claims that Americans are lazy. Besides, here’s some evidence to the contrary: who can argue against these incredibly skimpy vacation numbers we get relative to other countries?

[Click on the column header to sort. Yes, this is a clipped table I swiped from this CNN Money's post which features the vacation policies of even more countries. Thank you CNN Money!]

Country/Region Minimum Paid
Vacation Days
Paid public holidays Total
Australia 20 11 (avg.) 31**
Canada 10 10 (avg.) 20
Denmark 25 10 35
Finland 30 14 44
France 30 10 40
Germany 24 10 34
India 12 19 31
Israel 24 16 (avg.) 40
Japan 20 15 35
New Zealand 20 11 31
Pakistan 14 14 28
Philippines   5 14 19
Singapore 14 12 26
United Kingdom 20   8 28
United States 15* 10* 25*

If you sort the table above by Total Vacation Hours (by clicking on “Total”), you’ll realize that Americans don’t relax that much. In fact, we have around 40% fewer days off than countries like Finland, France and Israel, which top the “time off” charts.

Based on absolute work hours, we’re certainly not lazy people at all (our girths are another story altogether), and in fact, we’re very productive workers. In short, as a nation, we work hard and smart. And yet, we don’t seem to be taking the breaks we deserve.

Why We’re Skipping Our Vacations

Would you seriously say “NO” to this?


Unfortunately, a lot of us do.

Despite the fact that we don’t get as much time off as citizens of certain other countries, you’d think we’d be making a stink about this. But no… studies show that we’re apparently frittering away this benefit by skipping the actual vacation time we’re allowed to take, deciding instead to keep ourselves at work!

In general, Americans are known to have fewer vacation days than their counterparts in other countries. But what’s also interesting is that Americans don’t typically consume their entire vacation allowance and choose not to fully take advantage of the breaks that are entitled to them. And those who do take days off do so rather halfheartedly: seemingly many workers continue to keep tabs with their offices even as they take that occasional day off. And no, I am not just saying this — the information just stated are conclusions reached by studies that were generated on the subject.

Ironically, a dated survey shows that given a choice, people would prefer upping their vacation time and reducing their salaries rather than make more money, but the fact remains that workers aren’t willing to slow down just yet. So why this is happening? The paradox here is actually rooted in a few causes:

  • American individualism. It’s our workplace culture at work. There is pressure to conform to your given office culture, so if you have a workaholic atmosphere, you’ll tend to foster it as well.
  • Job insecurity and office guilt. We feel dispensable and without any guarantees from our employers, we become insecure when we’re away from the office action.
  • Keeping up with the Joneses. This is the clincher. We all want to outdo each other and the pressure is great. We’d like to be the one who owns the latest and newest in everything, the one who has the bigger car, home or “toy”, and we’re willing to work really hard and sacrifice leisure time for what we could gain materially. It’s what we’ve been doing to address our material envy.

It appears that we don’t take vacations NOT because we can’t…but because we don’t want to. It’s all in our value system — and it’s not because we are just naturally industrious people. It’s mainly because we want more. We are geared by our society to be heavy consumers of stuff, and sad to say, the fact that we are the richest country in the world doesn’t buy us more leisure and time for ourselves but rather more things to play with. Perhaps this is why we are seen as “fat” — a characteristic that alludes to wealth, corpulence, even greed for all the cool things in the marketplace that we buy as trophies for our hard labor.

On top of all that, we’re spending all this time at work and the rat race, often to provide “the best” for our children. But our kids may not need to be so coddled. Apparently, American kids are considered “lazy” enough as it is when you size them up against children from the rest of the world:

There was a study that reported that Japanese kids of school age actually study for 42 hours a week, compared with the Americans’ 26 hours. More importantly, Japanese students put in an additional 19 hours each week studying outside the classroom, versus just 4 hours for the Americans.

Unlike in other nations, we shouldn’t have to wait for a government mandate to make us take our vacations. It would be nice if hard-working breadwinners learned to relax, took the time off and spent it with the family instead of running the treadmill of consumption. Instead of giving in to our tendency of pampering and spoiling our kids with material goods to appease our parental guilt, let’s all take a collective break and spend more time with them. With a readjustment of values we can achieve an improved work-life balance. And if this is what you mean by “fat and lazy”, then I’m all for it.

Image Credit: Best Western Hotels

Created October 16, 2007. Updated April 6, 2012. Copyright © 2012 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremy October 16, 2007 at 9:15 am

I wish I could bring myself to take more time off. I actually still have about 160 hours (or 20 days) of vacation time available this year, and there are only about 47 working days left in the year. What I don’t use this year will just get rolled into next year, where I’ll probably have over 35 days, not including holidays to take off.

I guess for me, it is guilt and my position that makes me avoid time off. I’m supporting over 3,000 employees, and I work at a remote location. When I’m not in the office, there isn’t someone who can come in to cover for me. It is a unique situation, but because of that, it doesn’t lend itself to taking extended periods of time off of work.

Even when I do take some time off, I dread coming back. While my voicemail and email says I’m out of the office and that all calls should be directed to our 800 number service center, even taking a long weekend can result in dozens of voicemails and 100 emails that need to be attended to on Monday.

Because of that, it makes the time off not even seem worth it when you know that as soon as you get back you’re going to be so swamped and miserable.

Silicon Valley Blogger October 16, 2007 at 9:44 am

Didn’t realize you were in such a position! That guy in the hotel room photo must be how it is for you, the way I hear you describe things. Knowing a little bit about you, I can sense this is really a challenging job you hold and I’m curious to know why you don’t have others to back you up or serve as support/provide assistance etc. I’m surprised you can cover as many as 3,000 employees and still remain sane! My tax guy has over 300 clients and seems to work constantly. I was amazed how he could service all these people. Is it this tough to work in the finance industry? Maybe I need to rethink my “dream” of being a CFP ;-\! I’m glad I’m in charge of nobody — I’m just one of those people in the corner cube waiting for the next long weekend.

guinness416 October 16, 2007 at 10:14 am

The three men who own the company I work for have a “no-contact” vacation policy and regularly take two week vacations (two of them, like me, are immigrants). I’ve always felt that if these guys, whose names are on the door and whose “baby” this place is can take off without their blackberries, there’s no reason us wage slaves can’t. I’ve always taken every last day of my vacation time, and have certainly turned down job offers which include only 2 weeks.

My siblings in Ireland think we’re insane in North America, plain and simple.

david October 16, 2007 at 11:05 am

Yea, American kids are pretty spoiled so is best to spend time with them than to buy them toys and gifts all the time!

Patrick October 16, 2007 at 11:18 am

I recently returned from my first vacation in over a year, and it was loooooong overdue! I took almost 2 weeks off without any e-mail, cell phone, blog, work, or anything else that would keep me from enjoying myself. It was the most enjoyment I’ve had in a long time, and something I plan on doing whenever I get the chance. :)

Jeremy October 16, 2007 at 2:05 pm


Luckily I’m not in hotels very often, but I do some time there for sure. And the reason there isn’t anyone to cover people like me when we’re gone is a combination of the specialty of the position as well as location.

For one, not anyone can just step in. You have to have the appropriate NASD (Now FINRA or something) licenses. These people are limited in supply, so it isn’t easy to find someone who just send out for a week.

In addition, I don’t work at my employer’s office. Our home office is in New York, and I’m 1,200 miles away. In fact, my office is actually just a small office on-site with our client. So, you have security clearance and everything that goes along with working at a location like that.

There are times in which they can send someone to help, but it is rare. And sure, the people at our 800 number can handle and process everything I can, but when employees are used to having a real human on-site to deal with, they of course never want to call a phone number, which sucks for me.

Silicon Valley Blogger October 16, 2007 at 2:10 pm

Based on where I am today, I will have to agree that I could no longer take a job that only offered 2 weeks vacation. Priorities change with time and age so to me, money is less important while time (off) is.

Sounds like the best way to recharge! :) I wonder now whether age or financial status has anything to do with how we value time off. Another reason why you would just want to keep working is if you really like what you are doing — if that’s the case, then you don’t really have a job, but a calling.

I used to be overworked myself until the last 7 years, when I figured I could no longer handle it and other life changes forced me to slow down. When you’re young and unencumbered, working all hours is much more do-able. There is no way today that I could do what I used to do — so I wouldn’t blame the company if they gave my job away to younger people.

Toby Boyce October 16, 2007 at 2:14 pm

Vacation. Ahh, I remember those back when I was a child. Distant memories.

I think you missed one “reason” why we don’t take more time off – inter-dependence. Many of our offices and companies have streamlined over the past several years which leaves us with little or no support systems to keep life going.

When I worked in higher education, I got 22 vacation days a year and would use about 5. It was nuts, because if I left it would push any work I missed off to my colleagues — who were also dealing with over-flowing plates.

We are not a lazy society, however we are a sedimentary society.

plonkee October 16, 2007 at 2:19 pm

I can’t function after a while without taking annual leave. When I do come back after a proper break, I find that I’m more enthusiastic about work and can focus much better. I think everyone should try out the benefits of taking proper time off.

Mike-TWA October 16, 2007 at 2:34 pm

“I’m glad I’m in charge of nobody — I’m just one of those people in the corner cube waiting for the next long weekend.”

I’ve got to say, I’ve been thinking about this avenue lately as an alternative to the less structured day job that seems to trade fake flexibility for what is in reality no structured time-off. To me, this seems the frequent point of tension. I remember that, when interviewing out of grad school, employers listed on their published “resumes” that they offered X-weeks time off. It was all made up. That is, they could have just as easily offered infinite time off, with the simple caveat that you meet often-undefined production standards. In other words, all time off was illusory. I imagine workers of all levels feel that the unwritten rule is you can have all the vacation time you need, provided you don’t need that much.

dimes October 16, 2007 at 7:08 pm

I think a lot of people are afraid to take time off because it will prove how expendable they really are. I take time off to prove the opposite.

Edward Allen October 16, 2007 at 8:13 pm

This post is spurious, based on what I’ve seen of the world. For example, go to Japan and see all the lights on in offices in Tokyo late into the night as workers beaver away on schemes to beat the United States. The Japanese really take pleasure in finding ways of bringing the U.S. to heel, and they work very hard at it — longer, I believe, than Americans.

Debbie M October 17, 2007 at 7:59 am

To me, the “job security and office guilt” rings true. I think Jeremy’s situation (and Toby’s) are not all that unusual.

I think the problem is that a lot of employers don’t have a plan for when people are away. We don’t cross-train, or we hire the minimum number of people we would need on the assumption that no one ever takes their time off. I once explained to a supervisor that if everyone in our office took all their vacation days and none of their sick days, we would be missing someone an average of one day in three. So she should train herself to expect that and not freak out all the time.

We also tend to think that our employer can’t do without us and we kind of want management to think that, too, so they won’t lay us off.

And definitely there is an office culture in many places that if salaried people aren’t working over 40 hours, then they are slackers. Even among hourly-paid people, if you’re taking all your sick leave, you’re likely to be first on the list when lay-offs are required.

I have guilt, too, but it just makes me take a lot of short vacations instead of a few long ones. During most times of the year, people can wait a week for something.

guinness416 October 17, 2007 at 8:07 am

I think that’s a really good comment dimes, and I feel the same way. Not only do they realize how much you contribute while you’re there, but they know you’re not a doormat.

KT October 17, 2007 at 8:17 am

This does not address a working condition I believe may be unique to America: the “permanent temp.” Corporate America has discovered that they can save a lot of money by staffing what once were “permanent” jobs with benefits with contractors. Many of these positions were once professions, like software engineers, technical writers, requirement analysts, and project managers. And many of us who were unlucky enough to be laid off at mid-career are finding that we cannot find a permanent position and get stuck in a boom/bust cycle of 3-6 month contracts, with 3-6 months of unemployment in between.

NO that is NOT the same as real time off…it is time spent in a desperate, more-that-full-time, gut wrenchingly terrifying job search, spent at home, eating cheap, buying nothing, doing nothing enjoyable because the money is already flying out the window — and you are having to try to live on half of the salary your traditionally employed peers are making, because of the gaps between gigs. Get another gig? Nothing changes, you still can’t enjoy
yourself. You have to scrimp and save every penny you make because you know that at the end of the contract, you’ll be unemployed again, so you have to save enough to try to cover that. You spend almost all of your at-home time looking for a “permanent” job or trying to figure out how to bootstrap your own business. Since there is NO paid time off or personal leave available to you, you lose sleep to do this. But you can’t push that too far, because if you get sick, you don’t get paid.

There is also no such thing as a 40 hour work week — above a certain hourly rate, the job is classified as “salaried,” meaning that the company can work you as many hours as they see fit and not pay you a penny more. I had a Web 2.0 job that required me to work 100 hours a week for 9 months straight — not a single day off — just to meet “expectations.” No, you can’t manage most bosses’ expectations any more — they’ll just replace you. FEAR keeps people going into the office when they need to be taking time off.

I don’t have a large sum of money, but if I did, I would bet a portion of it that the figures in this study were compiled from traditionally employed people, a demographic that is shrinking and becoming more elite. I would bet that no contractors were surveyed. This is the soft underbelly of American employment: a growing number of people who no longer count, expendable employees with no rights, no benefits, no time off, and bloody little hope. Want an eye-opener? Try going into a technology business and see if you can spot the temps. Don’t see any? Quietly ask. You will be surprised how many “employees” are actually contractors, and are caught in the desperate cycle I described.

JM October 17, 2007 at 10:53 am

Wow. I feel sorry for all you people. Really I do. I work for a large American university and get 2 vacation days AND 1 sick day off per month. I pretty much take a week off once a quarter, sometimes just to play video games, plus the university closes for 2 weeks around christmas, so there’s a free 2 weeks right there. Of course, I probably don’t get paid as much as you guys, but you know what? I don’t need it. Getting 2x the median household income for my area is plenty for me. I would rather have less money anyway than being able to pay for my first heart attack at age 42 anyway.

And to answer your question above, no, I wouldn’t want to move to france, because I wouldn’t want to have to take a cut in my vacation time :) .

beth October 17, 2007 at 11:16 am

One of the reasons I left my last job was because we were a small organization and it was really complicated to take time off – to our credit, we fully supported and encouraged it, but I was the person scheduling to fill in the gaps, and it was a tremendous pain.

Now I’m in a job with over 4 weeks off to start (not counting holidays, but that IS our sick time as well), and it’s a job that is challenging, but can totally absorb vacations without too badly hurting colleagues. As a bonus we go down to skeleton crews between Christmas and New Years.

I can’t see going back to a 2-weeks-off per year gig. As it is I will only have 30 hours left to roll over into next year :)

mlb fan October 17, 2007 at 5:06 pm

I too used to work on a small company and it was hard to take time off. Even when you took time off, I had to be on call 24/7. I did change jobs to a bigger company and find a lot more people take time off just about anytime they want.

The Financial Blogger October 17, 2007 at 6:42 pm

SVB, you should look up some studies that shows that an individual is more productive if he is able to take time off and disconnect from work for a certain period of time.

I used to think that taking vacation was a sign of weaknesses unless it was to go somewhere. I was never calling sick, always working, even on Xmas eves.

Now that I have a family, I understand that vacation is good for everybody. I get to spend some quality time with my kids and wife. When I come back, I usually have fresh ideas and a great bag of motivation to work even harder (and more efficiently).

I love to take all my vacation days now… maybe it’s cultural and CDN are just lazy ;-)

louise November 7, 2007 at 11:08 am

this is very interesting, I am an Aussie and I have great conditions in the job I am in at the moment. These are my annual entitlements:
4 weeks recreation leave
3 weeks special rec leave
3 weeks sick leave
4 days family leave
5 days training leave
5 days professional development leave
the good thing is that all this accrues so I can save it up and take a break. I also have flexible hours so I can change them suit myself to some degree. Working for the govenrment has it’s perks!

Shibuya May 2, 2009 at 2:34 am

Great blog. The one thing that you don’t mention is that there is a lot of paid or forced overtime in Japan though it is technically illegal. I am sure it occurs in some other nations as well.

It is probably the higher end that fits the workaholic criteria you lay out as well… generally those involved in some “meaningful work” are more likely to be successful.

Cher pearce December 3, 2009 at 5:35 am

I think when you are working in the corporate world, it is impossible to ever get the time off that you deserve for holidays & vacations, because you are continually trading your time for money, you stop working.. the money stops coming!

I think the only way you can ever get round this is to be self-employed and leverage other peoples efforts or systems so that when you do take time off, the money keeps coming!

Thanks for sharing this post, really good content.


Silicon Valley Blogger April 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Something I’d like to add here — some people are just BORN workaholics. If you’ve got a Type A personality, have OCD (to some degree), are a naturally driven or ambitious person or tend to be a perfectionist, then you’ll be naturally inclined to work around the clock. I have to confess that I am this kind of person and it sometimes feels more like work to me to try to slow down, relax or take a break.

I will also have to say that what I wrote above isn’t necessarily the full picture when it comes to describing workaholics. The reward isn’t material stuff or wealth for some of them. In some cases, it’s the work itself (or the journey, as they say), that is the reward. Sitting still can be painful for the lot of us who are predisposed this way. You can probably describe this group as natural achievers — those who just want to keep doing stuff for the sake of doing it. The “high” they get is a sense of fulfillment and purpose that is afforded by the work they do, and the act of accomplishment can very well be their drug.

It’s another take on the psyche of some workaholics — for them, the driving force may not be the need to get rich or the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses; rather, their work itself is the drug.

Tyler S. April 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm

I wouldn’t consider myself a workaholic, but I have a really hard time sitting around doing nothing! Working gives me a challenging environment where I need to continually improve to succeed, and I enjoy it. Hopefully when I am older I will be able to enjoy lengthier vacations! :)

catherine turley April 7, 2012 at 10:02 am

i am a workaholic, and spend most of my time doing charity work. surprisingly perhaps, i don’t feel like i get any real reward or satisfaction from it. i just do it because it needs to be done. the only problem is that there is an unlimited amount of work. the good part is that, so far, i don’t seem to require any down time.

krantcents April 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I am in a career where I get a tremendous amount of vacation. I am a teacher who normally likes to teach summer school. Thanks to budget woes, that has not been a choice for the last few years. If I work all my free time, I still get 6 weeks off. I enjoy my time off, but I do not just sit around and do nothing.

Cyra April 9, 2012 at 9:39 pm

It’s always nice to take a vacation once in a while, to relieve the stress brought about by work. Vacation breaks are also healthy, as it gives you time to relax and be with people you love the most. I would also like to add that condo living is perfect for workaholics. Check out condos in downtown Austin for perfect living spaces.

Lee April 13, 2012 at 8:01 am

That was an immensely interesting comparison of world-wide holiday entitlements, thank you! Now, while I purchase a one-way ticket to Finland (mmm, vodka), I’ve a few observations…

I’m a Brit. I work hard. But importantly I also play hard. I’m entitled to 28 days holiday (I think I actually get more than this because I’m a dinosaur who has been at the same employer for 10 years) and I make sure I take every last second of it. It’s important to me to have a balance between work and life and that is hard to achieve in my line of work. Being able to truly ‘get away’ is important for well-being.

Job insecurity shouldn’t be a factor in whether you take holiday or not, and that concept actually seems alien to me. Is that truly how it is in other places across the world?

Silicon Valley Blogger April 13, 2012 at 9:41 am

@Catherine, thanks for sharing your story. I agree that there are situations when we are motivated mostly by a sense of obligation and responsibility. It’s one of the least common incentives for working, so kudos to all who make things happen because things have to be done.

@Lee, I appreciate your thoughts. A good company that values its employees will certainly respect and even encourage its workers to maintain a balance. But when we live in an environment of at-will employment, it breeds that sense of insecurity that skews the way folks put in their hours and decide to apply themselves to their jobs.

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