European vacation policies put America's summer Fridays to shame

For many US workers, heading home early at the end of the week is considered the height of luxury in the summer — the almighty “Summer Friday.”

But that’s nothing compared to policies in some parts of Europe.

As The Economist recently reported, businesses in many European countries close for weeks or months at a time, typically toward the end of the summer.

Some have called it the “August shutdown” or the more alliterative “summer shutdown.”

“I just like the message it gives, which is ‘I know it might look weird to you that I have closed my restaurant for two weeks when the city is packed with tourists, but I value my time with my family, partner, dog, whatever more than the profits I could make, and more than I care about the pressure to be available at all times,'” one recent Brussels emigre told The Telegraph.

The policy dates back to the early- to mid-20th century, when one missing assembly line worker — say, in Fiat factories in Italy or Volkswagen plants in Germany — made the whole chain fall apart. Factories across western Europe decided it was more efficient to close shop altogether and allow everyone, management and all, to take their year’s worth of vacation in one chunk. Today, countries including France, Spain, and the Netherlands all take extended vacations in late summer.

A great deal of research supports the extended vacation model — not just for workers’ own well-being but for the health of the businesses, too.

Consulting firm Sibson has found companies that encourage employees to make time for vacation tend to produce higher levels of engagement and lower rates of turnover. People don’t feel burnt out as often and often come back re-energised to do their work at a higher calibre. Research has also found that extended vacations tend to improve what psychologists call “affective wellbeing” — essentially a fancy term for mood.

“The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound,” clinical psychologist Francine Lederer told ABC News. “Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation, even if it is a 24-hour time-out.”

Perhaps that’s why European countries take so much more vacation than the US. In France, for instance, the average worker takes 30 days of paid vacation. In Austria, people take 25 but have 13 paid holidays. Data from the OECD show many of the countries that work fewer hours tend to produce more in terms of GDP per capita.

These aren’t the policies of private companies, either. They are laws set forth by the federal government that employers must follow. The US is the only industrialized country that does not have a federally mandated paid-time-off policy.

Given how globalized America’s economy has become, however, some experts doubt whether a month-long break could really be feasible on a wide scale. (In Europe, the policy does seem to be falling out of favour in some cases. The New York Times began reporting on signs of its demise even 20 years ago.)

“A shutdown might work in one region,” Dan Rogers, cofounder of the employee analytics firm Peakon, told The Telegraph, “but if you trade internationally, especially in the service or professional sector, it’s really hard to see how it could work.”

Some research also indicates long vacations might not be all they’re cracked up to be. While people tend to be happier in the short term on an extended break, they don’t often remember most of their drawn-out trips.

At least from a psychological standpoint, scattering the shorter breaks throughout the year may be more fulfilling in the long run.

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