By now you have definitely seen it: the Cadillac ad for its first hybrid car that has a hard on for America’s work ethic. “Other countries,” actor Neal McDonough says while strutting through his perfectly landscaped yard alongside his in-ground pool, “they work, they stroll home, they stop by the café, they take August off. Off.” Quelle horreur! And he explains that Americans, from Bill Gates to Ali, aren’t like that. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers,” he says. And he implies we do it for the glory, but also for the stuff, like a luxury car: the latter is “the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.”
But McDonough, or this hyper-capitalist alter ego, is dead wrong. Americans should absolutely take August off. It will, in fact, lead to more stuff—among other things.
Americans don’t take August off, but most people probably don’t even take two weeks during that month. Twenty rich countries have a national guarantee that workers can get some vacation time. Thirteen also make sure workers get at least a few paid holidays off. The United States, on the other hand, is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t have either requirement. About a quarter of Americans don’t have any paid vacation or holidays at all, a share that is growing—although I would guess that the luxury-product-buying, power-suit-wearing character McDonough plays in the commercial does get paid vacation time, as these benefits are disproportionately the purview of the rich. The average American worker gets about ten days of paid vacation and six paid holidays a year—that’s just over two weeks every year—which is less than the minimum required in nearly every other country. And of those who get paid vacation, they leave more than three days, on average, unused.
We also don’t ensure that workers can take other kinds of paid time off, like sick days or family leave or even a weekend. And we certainly aren’t slacking in the hours we work each week, either: we’re number eleven out of thirty-three developed countries for weekly hours worked.
What are all of these hours getting us? Certainly, we are one of the richest countries in the world. But all this time spent on the job without taking some time off to decompress isn’t necessarily why. It can be incredibly counterproductive. Henry Ford’s famous 1920s revelation that shortening the working day and the workweek would lead to better productivity is still true.
Ford found that productivity diminished after workers put in eight hours a day, five days a week. And as Daniel Cook of Lost Garden has found, working more than sixty hours a week produces a small productivity boost, but it doesn’t last: after three or four weeks, it actually ends up hurting output. Other studies have found the same thing: you can push yourself into overwork for a short time and produce more, but eventually it will wear off and come back to bite you. Taking small breaks can also help people better focus and perform.