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5 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag


An American in Reykjavik: Out on Holiday - Europe´s Stellar Vacation Policy

By Matt Eliason

  • European employees enjoy signficantly more paid vacation time than my American counterparts. Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

Coming from the corporate landscape in America, I´ve heard mythical stories about the endless vacation days European businesses grant their employees. Now that I am here, I can assure all my North American friends that the rumors are true! I have come to discover that the typical Icelandic business grants 23-27 paid vacation days per year to entry-level employees, with extra days added to that total following each year of employment. It ends up that this abundance of holiday is the status quo for all of Europe. In addition to the paid vacation days, Icelandic businesses also offer 2 sick days per month to each worker as well as 2 sick days for the employees to care for their kids if they get sick. Add that to the numerous public holidays that are mandated by the government and I find myself only going into work about 50% of the time (slight exaggeration, but not really). This laid back lifestyle of working to live, not living to work is something that I can definitely get used to.

Before continuing, I want to clarify that Europeans do work hard at their jobs (when they are in the office). Furthermore, they are extremely efficient with their time. I find the hours that Icelander´s work in the office are spent much more productively than my American counterparts. A disciplined focus, mixed with a desire to finish their work in a much shorter timeframe, forces Icelanders, and on a larger scale Europeans, to utilize their time in the office wisely. In accordance, European´s experience a much healthier work-life balance than the typical American employee. American businesses frequently preach a healthy work-life balance, but rarely deliver on that promise. Europeans recognize that a happier, healthier, less-stressed employee will ultimately deliver a better quality of work.

So how did the large disparity in vacation days between the USA and Europe reach such epic proportions? The legislation put in place by each country’s respective government is a big factor in deciding a business´s vacation policy. To start, the average employee in the US receives a minimum of 10 paid days of vacation time per year as well as six paid holidays as mandated by the US government. This number lags far behind European nations such as the UK, which mandates 28 paid days off, Spain, with 30 paid days and 12 holidays, Scandinavian nations Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which require 25 paid vacation days, France, with 30 days off and one holiday, Germany, with 20-24 vacation days and up to 13 holidays and Greece, with 4 weeks and 6 holidays. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for an European worker to negotiate his or her vacation days upon the acceptance of a new job, based on the days they had accumulated with their previous employer.

So why doesn´t the United States just change its legislation regarding weekly hours and vacation days for salaried workers? I believe there is a social stigma tied to the weekly hours an American works and his or her reputation as a good employee. Obviously, the more hours you are in the office the more time you have to get work done. However, the element of efficiency is not factored into the equation. I believe there are plenty of good workers that can maintain a healthy work-life balance without working 100 hours a week. It is this hourly stigma that makes me highly skeptical that the United States will change its vacation policy anytime soon. Thus, the Europeans will continue to live the good life with their abundance of paid breaks, while Americans slave away at their desks, desperately waiting for their scarce time away from work.

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