Why France’s “Work to Live” Mindset is the Right One

Try to poke fun at them but don’t be surprised to get an “Out of Office” message in reply

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Years before moving abroad, I’d heard mythical tales about how lazy the French are:

  • They’re always on strike
  • They never work more than 35 hours in a week
  • They take coffee breaks every 15 minutes at work, for at least 30 minutes at a time

Then I moved to France and started an Executive MBA program where I was the only American in the class.

I walked in the door after my first day of class and my loving wife inquired “How was school today?”

“They sure take a lot of coffee breaks,” was my kneejerk response.

Four weeks vacation… only?

Finding myself surrounded by Franco slackers, I decided to take advantage and begin poking around to see if there was any truth to the lazy faire (translation: a play on the word laissé faire — which the French love).

The research experiment all started with a friendly exchange with a buddy back home in The States who was planning to come to visit us with his family.

As is often the case with ex-pats that move abroad to non-war torn countries, there is a tendency for friends, family, and random acquaintances to begin planning visits.

Most of the time, such visits are welcome, occasionally they’re just plain awkward. Given this buddy was a best friend, his visit would be more than welcome. The only thing standing in his way was time, more precisely vacation time.

So, as I’m working away one afternoon, I get a notification via Google Hangouts.

“Big news!!!” was all he said — more than effective bait to pull me away from whatever I was working on.

My buddy next informed me that he’s just negotiated additional PTO (paid time off) with his employer.

“Awesome!!!” Was my genuinely enthusiastic response, “How much do you have now?”

Knowing that I’m now living in the Land of the Free Time, my buddy immediately reigned in my expectations:

“First, know this is the most PTO I’ll ever get, at least with this employer,” he prefaced. “There’s no echelon higher than where I am now.”

“Okay,” I respond, genuinely impressed.

This sounded promising. I knew, after all, that he was a rising star in his company, but I had no idea he was talented enough to merit demigod-status. I brace myself, anticipating the unthinkable.

“Four weeks,” he reported.

Normally I would have considered four weeks an impressive number of vacation days, but for some reason, the number thudded unspectacularly in front of me.

Disturbed by my lackluster response to my buddy’s big announcement, I wondered what had changed in me. It’s not like I had any more vacation time than before.

True, I’m working for an American firm that offers “unlimited vacation time,” but what that translated into was working with my American colleagues on French holidays and working with my European counterparts on American holidays.

It’s hardly what I would have called the supposed French ideal of lazy-faire.

The French Response

The revelation of what has changed begins to take form less than twenty-four hours later, as I’m breaking French bread with a Parisian client over lunch.

“It’s just like August in the office,” she offhandedly remarked. “Nobody’s around and it’s impossible to get anything done.”

“Excuse-moi?” Marveling that she can refer to an entire month to visually represent an empty office, I inquired further.

She explained that French law requires its citizens to use their paid time off, otherwise, it’s lost forever.

“In rare cases, people can negotiate a carry-over,” she explained. “Most people, however, just have to use it up.”

Fortunately, using PTO for the French is as popular a national pastime as not taking PTO in the States.

Just how popular? Check out the nifty graphic below…

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According to Statista, “American workers get compared to other developed countries. The U.S. remains the only advanced economy that does not guarantee paid vacation while a statutory minimum is very much the norm everywhere else. …It might then come as a surprise to hear that U.S. workers managed to waste 768 million paid vacation days last year despite their miserable vacation allowance. That’s also a 9 percent increase on the amount wasted in 2017.”

Digging in a little deeper, I began finding differing reports on France’s official minimum annual leave ranging between 25 and 30 days and between 1 and 10 paid holidays.

Seeing as 26 to 40 days of mandatory vacation time seems mythical to my American state-of-mind, I ask my French client her take.

“It’s true,” she confirmed. “Many people have more than five weeks. I have a good friend for example that accumulates an additional two days per month.”

Doing the math quickly, that comes out to about 10 weeks of PTO per year.

I almost choked on the crusted sugar top of my creme brûlée. “Ten weeks of paid vacation?!” That’s two and a half months, which when you add in public holidays means that my French friend’s friend is only required to work 3/4 of the year.

This was more than mythical, it’s outright absurdity ringing in my “Made in the USA” ears.

This might be because, of the 35 member countries that form the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which represents the far majority of the world’s most advanced economies, the United States is the only nation that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.

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This means that my best friend, with his MBA and C-level office accommodations, is guaranteed 30 times less paid vacation than the entry-level cashier at my village boulangerie in France.

It’s nuts, but true.

I checked with her just to be sure. She was a student that worked Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays mornings yet was still guaranteed five weeks paid time off.

Unsurprisingly, this type of discrepancy has a major impact on work-life balance. France, with its “Oh la la!” PTO perks, offers its workers a “Top 3” work-life balance ranking within the OECD:

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The United States, on the other hand, manages to pull up the backend of the index, sharing a “Worst 10” ranking with countries like Turkey, Mexico, and Latvia (notice Latvia scores higher, BTW):

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With the ranking comes a host of other nasty side-effects, as noted by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in his new book Dying for a Paycheck:

“So many of these workplace practices, like work-family conflict and long work hours, are as harmful to health as secondhand smoke, a known and regulated carcinogen… We found that they account for about 120,000 excess deaths a year in the United States, which would make the workplace the fifth leading cause of death and costs about $190 billion dollars in excess health costs a year.”

It’s incredible to imagine that poor workplace policies can result in premature death, but that’s only because in the United States we’ve yet as a culture to develop a clear link between working days, stress, and longevity.

This is by no means a clear example of why the French model is universally superior.

It does, however, point to a willingness to focus on the well-being of the individual over the well-being of the organization, which is something I doubt will take hold in the States any time soon.

In the meantime, if you’re like my buddy Jim, you might consider taking an entry-level cashier position in my French village’s boulangerie.

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