Home Working in Belgium Employment Law How long is your holiday?
Last update on June 18, 2019
Written by V-Grrrl

“The average American works 45 hours a week and gets 12 vacation days. The French get 30, Germans get 27, the Dutch get 25 and UK workers get 23.”

At a recent dinner party, the conversation turned to summer holidays and the French, Dutch, Irish, and Belgian folks around the table discussed their plans to vacation for three-four weeks in Turkey, Southern France and Spain. Heads turned expectantly towards us, the token Americans, to see where we’d be going this summer.

We noted that my husband’s job would take him to Germany early in the summer and we’d all travel with him and tack some family sightseeing days onto the beginning and end of the trip, but other than that, we didn’t have a holiday planned, though we expected to make some weekend or day trips.A stunned silence accompanied the diners’ blank expressions, so we offered a bit more information. We explained that we tried to avoid the summer tourist crowds and so we’d spent a week in Paris last fall and a week in the UK in April.

Americans, we said, don’t normally take long vacations.

As an afterthought I added: “The typical American summer vacation is one week long”.

Somewhere at the table, there was a small gasp of disbelief. Only a WEEK?! I tried to clarify the issue further:

“People normally only get about two weeks of vacation a year and they don’t take it all at once. Even if you have a lot of vacation days, taking more than a week off is generally frowned upon.”

Our French companion snorted. “Why not?”

“Well,” my husband explained, “The general thinking is that if the office or business can function without you for two or more weeks, then maybe your job isn’t necessary.

This observation was greeted with pitiful looks and snippets of indignation. No one vocalizes what they’re all clearly thinking: Americans are crazy and take the whole capitalism thing too far!

Just this week, that whole scene at the dinner party came rushing back to me as I read a report comparing European and American work habits.

According to Expedia, the average American works 45 hours a week and gets 12 vacation days. The French get 30, Germans get 27, the Dutch get 25 and UK workers get 23.

Out of his 12 vacation days, the average American uses nine and ‘sells’ the remainder back to his employer. Are they pressured not to take their days or would they rather work than be at home?

In many US businesses, you must book your vacation time for the entire year on the company calendar in January. Senior employees get first dibs on the dates and junior employees get to pick from what’s left over.

Even when you have vacation days to burn, you can’t necessarily take them when you want to. The company must always be staffed and serving customers; people have to rotate their vacation days to make sure that happens. The idea of the needs of the business or its customers coming before the needs of the workers’ holidays is an alien concept here in Europe.

My first summer here in Belgium, I was shocked to discover many businesses completely closed down for the entire month of August or big chunks of July. Pharmacies, restaurants and shops stick a notice on the front door, lock things up and leave all thoughts of work or business behind as they join traffic queues on the highways or at the airport, all heading out of Belgium.

God help you if you need a plumber or mechanic in the summer or need assistance from a government agency. For better or worse, life is on hold in Belgium until September. Even if the workers aren’t ON holiday, they’re either anticipating it or recovering from it. No one seems very concerned about work.

Maybe next year we’ll have absorbed enough of European culture to join our friends and neighbors for a month at the beach. We’ll refuse to check emails or answer calls from the office. We’ll leave our cell phones in the suitcase and sit under a big umbrella at the shore. For one month we’ll try to forget the deeply ingrained American work ethic and business protocols and have a ‘proper’ holiday, European style.

V-Grrrl / Expatica