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Are Americans overworked?

Jeremy Hobson: So we've heard that we're not working hard enough. We've heard why we should make little kids work harder. We've heard about our shared history of hard work.

But forget all that for a second. Because there are some people out who think we've got this all wrong. Maybe we're working too hard -- and what we could really use is a vacation.

Sally Herships has that part of the story.


Sally Herships: So how hard do Americans work? I took a walk through New York City's Grand Central Station and asked some people.

Herships: What's a typical workday for you, from what time to what time?

Man 1:I get up at six and I check e-mail for a few hours. And then work until about six. And then maybe an hour at home when I...

Herships: So hold on a second -- can you add that up for me? How many hours are you working?

Man 1:I don't know. I don't want to add it up.

Herships: So do you feel like you get enough vacation?

Man 2:No. We get no vacation here. In the past, I have worked Christmas Eve, Easter, Thanksgiving. I can't even remember, I'm pretty much here all the time.

Everyone I spoke to had the same story. We work lots and lots of hours and get very little vacation.

So does anyone get enough vacation? Oh, right -- the Europeans. I asked some of my European Facebook friends how much vacation time they get. There's the Spanish. They get about:

Spanish man: Twenty-two days per year.

Not including more time for holidays like Christmas. The Germans:

German woman: In my current job as a research scientist, we get 30 days of vacation time.

That's one month. Then there are the Italians:

Italian man: Five weeks. The average vacation time in Italy is five weeks.

Then the French:

American expat in France: I live in France and I get nine weeks of vacation, not including holidays. Au revoir.

The Austrian contact I had was, ironically, on vacation. If you're feeling envious right about now, you might be interested in an organization called Take Back Your Time. It's a policy group fighting American overwork. John de Graaf is the executive director.

Herships: I guess the first question is do Americans work too hard?

John de Graaf: I don't know about too hard -- I think they work too hard too -- but I certainly think they work too much.

In 2009, de Graaf introduced a bill, the Paid Vacation Act. It would have made paid vacation required under federal law, but it didn't go over so well.

de Graaf: You would have thought we were calling for the end of western civilization as we know it.

The bill died in Congress not long after it was introduced. De Graaf says the average American works between 200 and 400 hours more every year than the average western European. You'd think that would make us more productive, but it doesn't.

de Graaf: Because every business seems to think that its short-term profits come from working people as hard and intensely as possible.

But working people too hard can create big problems. de Graaf says the more hours we work, the less time we have to relax, pet the dog, exercise and spend time with our friends and families. He says all that affects our health. He notes: Americans are almost twice as likely to get heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer than western Europeans. Which is expensive for companies because the cost of health care in the U.S. is so high.

de Graaf: But it's also higher because their workers are less healthy.

Which perpetuates a problematic cycle. High health care costs encourage companies to ask fewer workers to do more work meaning less free time.

Remember I said earlier everyone I met in Grand Central told me they don't get enough vacation? Well it wasn't quite true. New Yorker Cecilia Acevedo says she gets enough time off.

Cecilia Acevedo: I actually do. Only because I'm a registered nurse, and I'm a per diem nurse, so I work and I play at the same time.

Acevedo says she's already been on two vacations this year to the Dominican Republic.

Herships: And do you get benefits?

Acevedo: That's the problem -- I don't. I have no insurance and I'm 65 years old.

So she told me next month she's starting a new, full-time job -- with benefits. Hopefully it'll have enough vacation to let her take the third holiday she's already planned for this year.

In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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