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Demand more time off!

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009 by Nigel Jones

I’ve been posting on a lot of technical issues lately and so I thought I’d turn to a less cerebral topic – but one which I feel quite passionate about. First off – some background. I’m British by birth and was raised in Europe (UK & Germany) before moving to the USA in my early twenties. Upon arrival in the USA I was struck by many things; however professionally what amazed me was the number of hours the typical engineer works in the USA compared to their European counterparts. When I left the UK, the standard work week was 37.5 hours and the typical amount of paid time off was 4 weeks for new hires, quickly increasing to 6 weeks or more with length of service. To this was added 8 bank holidays. Perhaps more importantly, employers seemed to think that this was a good thing. For example, my employer at the time had the following policies in effect:

  • Employees were encouraged to work their 37.5 hours in such a way, that the work week ended at lunch time on Friday, effectively ensuring that employees had 2.5 day weekends.
  • Employees were strongly encouraged to take at least 2 weeks off as a block, thus ensuring that they got at least one long break from work every year.

By contrast, when I arrived in the USA, I discovered that the norm was quite different. Indeed the policies I encountered were as follows (and this from the American branch of the same firm as I had worked for in the UK):

  • Work week of 40 hours.
  • Engineers were routinely expected to put in unpaid overtime, with 10 hours being the norm.
  • Annual vacation of two weeks, which only started accruing after 6 months service.
  • Very long serving employees might get 3 weeks vacation a year.
  • Taking more than one week off at a time was actively discouraged.

So what to make of this? If you do the mathematics, a typical engineer in the USA would be working about 50 * 50 = 2500 hours a year (ignoring bank holidays – which are about the same), whereas a typical engineer in the UK would be working 37.5 * 48 = 1800 hours – a 39% difference. Now the question is, did I perceive the engineers in the USA to generate more output? I’d say yes, but only by a few percent, and certainly no where near the 39% more hours that they worked.
I’m sure other people’s experience will differ. However it’s clear to me why there isn’t a big difference in productivity. I solve most of my toughest technical problems when I’m not at work. Indeed, there is nothing like taking a stroll, going for a bike ride, or even sitting down for a beer with friends for clearing the mind and allowing you to literally look at issues from a new perspective. I know this experience isn’t unique to me, so why don’t employers see the light and realize that everyone benefits from requiring engineers (and other professions – but that’s outside my bailiwick) to take more time off?

Maybe it’s just me, but a start in changing this situation could be for more engineers to start demanding more time off. Some companies are starting to see the light. For example Netrino offers its employees 5 weeks vacation. Let’s make them the norm – not the exception!

As a final note, I know I have regular readers from other parts of the world – South America, Australasia, and the former eastern block. I’d be interested to hear what your working conditions are like.

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7 Responses to “Demand more time off!”

  1. Reid says:

    I live and work in Australia. Working conditions are rapidly approaching those of the US, though not quite as bad in terms of leave.* 40 hour work week* Unpaid overtime is expected from time to time, average 4 hours per week* Annual paid leave of 4 weeks* Long service leave after 10 years service, 0.86 weeks per year of serviceTaking several weeks off at a time is generally OK, provided you give sufficient notice (i.e. several months in advance).I agree with the idea of solving problems while not at work – I ride a push bike to work and this is where I solve most of the tricky problems.

  2. Anonymous says:

    1. Why comments are not visible by default?2. Is worth to add how many problems was resolved during sitting in loo.. isn’t it? /GregK

  3. Steve Egerter says:

    I work with a wide variety of engineers in every segment of the electronics industry so I know that a lot of engineers, especially those who consult, work upwards of 12 hours per day to meet deadlines. I think that engineers are more productive in the US than in many other countries but I seriously doubt that they are happier.

  4. K1200LT Rider says:

    I’m 46 years old in the U. S. and just made a move to a better position work-wise to a big company, but I’m starting out new just like a fresh-out from college: 2 weeks earned vacation a year along with a standard paid shutdown between Christmas and New Years. Not bad, but not great compared to Europe. I’m not complaining too loudly, though. At least I’m generally happy (so far), and I’m employed! In fact, we’ll need to hire a few software engineers in the coming months!What I would like is the option to have more vacation with a correspondingly-lower salary. Why is that at least not an option anywhere? Or maybe be allowed to work 4 10-hour days a week permanently. I would love the 20% lower vehicle usage and necessity to put up with high-stress traveling while dealing with idiotic, highly agressive fools on the freeway who literally endanger my life every day.- Brad

  5. Nigel Jones says:

    I think you have touched upon a larger issue, which is how employers treat engineers in general. I think I’ll make this a topic of a post in the next week or two.

  6. simplefulllife says:

    Here in Vancouver Canada, we are 40hour work week typically, but expected to work overtime when needed up to 45. At least we have a banking policy above 45.I think my company is fairly typical in starting at 3 weeks off, then adding one day for each year served up til 6 weeks I think.G

  7. Anonymous says:

    I started my career in Poland (where I come from) from the beginning of my university years (half-time) and worked for 3 years after completing my courses (full-time). That wasn't too bad at the beginning but as my company was getting more and more contracts the boss was going crazier. Questions like: "What? You're going? It's just 4pm? (after 8 hours)" became normal. Later: "I think you should come on Saturday as well…". Ok, they paid for that but what about efficiency? I believe that you can not do any creative work for more than 6 hour a day. The rest may be used for paper work. Working over-hours began to affect my private life (I almost split with my girlfriend). So after three years of full-time (and over-time) frustration I decided to change a job and move to some other country with slightly higher standards in this field. I currently live in Ireland (still working in embedded) where all my stress is gone :)Mac

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