The Most Productive Country in the World Isn't the One You Would Expect


"I could really use a week off to just go to the beach, but my boss might hate me if I asked for it." That might be something you've told yourself in the last week, especially if you're an American. It's the American way: the "no-vacation nation," or so it goes.

But time and time again, we've been told by studies that less vacation time doesn't necessarily mean a more productive and successful country. International studies have rubbed data and other information in our faces showing that other countries are simply more productive and competitive than we are.

Take Switzerland, for example. Switzerland has filled the No. 1 spot for the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index for five years in a row, and it offers 28 days of federally mandated paid vacation time. Ever wonder how many days the United States federally mandates? None. 

Image Credit: Cheezburger

That's zero days compared with Switzerland's 28, not including federal holidays and the fact that many Swiss firms actually offer more than 28. 

The United States, which is so preoccupied with being "productive" and "competitive" with other countries, is the World Economic Forum's No. 5 most competitive country, behind Switzerland, Singapore, Finland and Germany. All those countries have federally mandated vacation times. Out of 21 developed countries, the United States is the only one that doesn't require employers to provide paid vacation time, according to a 2013 study by a left-leaning think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Because America leaves firms to their own devices on break policy, the amount of PTO (paid time off) Americans get varies vastly between socioeconomic classes. Only half of low-wage workers (bottom one-fourth of earners) have any paid vacation, the study found. Compare that to 90% of high-wage workers (top one-fourth of earners): The 77% of Americans who do get paid vacation time get an average of 13 days. 

The act of shutting your brain off for at least a week is vital for work performance, not just a luxury. A Bloomberg Businessweek article from 2007 recalls former NASA scientists who used astronauts' testing tools and found that vacationers experienced an 82% increase in job performance after their trips. And these were not puny two or three-day vacations: They were at least one to two weeks long.

"Experts agree that a key ingredient in peak performance is a drastic change of venue coupled with shutting down for extended periods of time," writes Michelle Conlin.

Is there a time when relaxation just becomes lazy? There is, indeed, a cap on the amount of relaxation in which you should indulge, though that cap is usually decided by cultural expectations. Maybe Switzerland is the ideal to measure by: The Swiss are known for their productivity and work ethic. In 2012, the Swiss rejected a referendum that would have changed the federally mandated paid vacation time to six weeks because they were afraid it would harm their growing economy. The results have been laudable, according to the World Economic Forum. "The country has a top-notch labor market that is both flexible and efficient in deploying its talent," the report states. So there's a lesson for you in work-life balance.

As for Americans, working too hard is making us stressed, sick and disengaged from our jobs, says Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post. We rank in the bottom section of the work-life balance scale from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

But part of the blame can be placed on the American workforce itself: Only 56% of Americans take the vacation time that's given to them, according to a study by the employment firm Hudson. 

One study published by the Journal of Happiness Studies posits that working makes Americans happier than it does Europeans. That might be the reason why Americans are so addicted to working. David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom referenced this study in a Forbes column last week, explaining that the American psyche might just be full of the need to "accomplish" or "discover," and that their frame of mind doesn't welcome vacation as an opportunity to do either.

But rewiring our culture around vacations could be the key to unlocking productivity and allowing the United States to rise to the top. Sturt and Nordstrom recommend viewing a vacation as yet another overachieving goal: an opportunity to discover other cultures and take on a new challenge.

Rethinking vacations in the United States could also start with federally mandated vacations — but until then, if you're looking for a vacation-friendly workplace, it might be time to think about living across the ocean.