The American Work Ethic: An Overview And A Comparison To Other Countries  

When it comes to American work ethic compared to other countries, US workers tend to work differently from people in other regions. They go on vacation less frequently and work longer hours. Another fascinating aspect of American work culture is that most people socialize in the workplace. This approach is wildly different from other countries.

Many non-Americans find such a work ethic unsustainable, yet it’s normal throughout the United States. It’s not unheard of for full-time working adults to spend up to 47 hours weekly in the workplace. This figure is higher than what you find in other parts of the world, including Europe.

German and Swedish workers often work roughly 35 hours per week. I’ve heard some Europeans say the American way is significantly inefficient. On the other hand, vacation time is another aspect of the work ethic that differs between countries. And Americans typically take the shortest time, roughly 14 days of paid leave annually. They don’t always use the paid vacation time offered by employers. It’s common for workers to take advantage of only half of the available paid leave.

american work ethic compared to other countries

Another thing that differs from the rest of the world in the US labor system is that there’s no guaranteed paid leave for new parents. Instead, employers determine what they offer to employees. That’s why most new parents take less time after birth compared to their peers in other parts of the world.

In Finland, expecting mothers take advantage of more generous paid leave before and after giving birth. They can take seven weeks from work to prepare for childbirth and can stay at home for another 16 weeks after birth.

Another fascinating thing about American work ethic history is that workers tend to eat at their workstations. An individual barely leaves the desk. Some may even forego lunch to concentrate on their duties. This trend gets reversed in Greece, France, Zimbabwe, and other nations where workers take hour-long lunch breaks. In these countries, employees typically eat away from workstations.

American work ethic compared to other countries: Work-life balance

When you think of work-life balance in the United States, it’s natural to ask yourself this – has the American work ethic got worse?

Well, Americans like to do things differently. It’s amazing how dedicated workers are. But, this seemingly hardcore approach translates to high productivity levels. Meanwhile, Europeans view such a work ethic as archaic. To them, the European work ethic is a practical way to prevent burnout.

american work ethic compared to other countries

In countries like Japan, people believe that 20 days of paid leave annually helps achieve a delicate work-life balance. These days increase to 30 per year in France and Finland. Americans are okay with a paltry 13 days of paid leave, and workers can stay available to colleagues throughout the vacation period.

France enacted laws compelling companies to set hours when employees must avoid doing any work-related things like sending and replying to emails. The bill aims to ensure that workers have an optimal work-life balance.

Frankly, I don’t see American lawmakers passing such a bill. For many people around the world, it’s super-important to separate work and personal life. That’s why some non-US workers resent getting contacted after-hours, on weekends, and on holidays.

Why is America obsessed with work? Mentality

When it comes to what is the American work ethic, the issue of mentality pops up. And an old saying holds the key to understanding Americans’ mentality. It states Americans live to work, and, to some extent, they do. Workers in the United States instinctively focus on high productivity. This approach has deep roots in the American hustle culture.

The most pleasing part about this culture is that the workspace remains friendly and positive despite an intensive focus on high levels of productivity. Conversely, Europeans are less friendly in the workplace. Unlike Europeans, you can expect positive feedback more often in the US.

american work ethic compared to other countries

Americans often define an individual based on what they do. But the funny thing is that they don’t take as much pride in their work compared to people from other regions. A Japanese individual is highly respectable if they’ve mastered their field.

On another level, I’m convinced that business leaders in the United States fail to understand that people work to receive wages and have something to believe in. And a sense of belonging provides something meaningful for team members.

Unsurprisingly, US workers don’t fare well when it comes to job satisfaction. It shares its unimpressive ranking globally with countries like Kazakhstan, the Philippines, and South Africa (Africa’s second-largest economy).

Here are the highest-ranking nations.

  • Sweden
  • Denmark
  • Austria
  • Costa Rica
  • Norway

Another factor that feeds into the American work ethic mentality is a strong emphasis on business titles. That could explain why workers in the United States are afraid to challenge their bosses. In comparison, Danish workers demand more equality in the workplace, irrespective of the title. So, workers want employers to embrace an open-door policy.

On the other hand, American bosses work tirelessly to stay in the loop. And they exercise oversight even over small things concerning the workforce. You don’t get that in Denmark, where business leaders only intervene if it’s necessary.

Do other countries work as hard as America? The American dream

Although many analysts attribute America’s development to democratic systems and capitalism, the work ethic in the country plays an integral role. America’s work ethic has evolved over the years. In its current form, it differs greatly from what the rest of the world considers the norm.

So, why are there significant differences between the United States and other countries? Some studies show that tax rates may explain why Americans work longer hours than in other regions like Europe. Other researchers believe that the long-standing European work culture and ‘work less, work all’ labor market laws helped create the differences from the US.

In the seventies, there were little differences in hours between European and the United States. But the trend reversed.

European trends

When thinking about what happened to work ethic in America, you need to look at the evolution of work culture locally and abroad. For instance, researchers work tirelessly to understand why Europeans approach work differently than Americans. But one thing is for sure; you can’t just invoke different cultures to explain this phenomenon.

american work ethic compared to other countries

The temptation among researchers has been to focus on social multipliers to explain why Europeans take longer vacation breaks. In the seventies, there was a significant shift in the European work culture. As a result, it differed widely from the American work ethic. Up to the First World War, Americans actually worked fewer hours than Europeans.

One strong argument about the trend reversal is that taxation triggered the changes. Likewise, Europeans grew more fond of leisure. Other key parts of the equation include unionization and changes in labor market laws. These factors influenced changes in the hours Europeans worked.

In the same vein, there was a decline in hours worked as unions demanded higher wages. This trend was stronger in unionized sectors. Later, a social multiplier effect resulted in wholesale changes in all sectors.

Impact of tax rates and union status on hours worked in the United States

When dealing with American work ethic compared to other countries, it’s vital to look at how union status and tax rates impact hours worked nationally. Researchers discovered that the impact of unionization is significant. Its impact is roughly identical to tax rates across various states.

Another key aspect that researchers noted is that regulated holidays have an impact on variations in weeks worked between Europe and the United States. There’s also the labor supply angle. These factors partially answer the question – how hard do Americans work compared to other countries?

The impact of legally mandated vacations

Analysts also examined whether labor market laws, taxation, and union policies are suboptimal. This view could be true because these factors affect workers’ leisure decisions. In some way, they could help resolve the labor market’s coordination issues.

On the other hand, factors that complement each other could result in social multipliers. That’s why labor policies aimed at promoting increased leisure time and an optimal work-life balance can improve workers’ welfare.

Given this view, it’s possible that people in the United States and Europe are keen to reduce hours worked, but it’s challenging to coordinate the reduction of working hours. This reality is particularly true in a competitive market where the workforce doesn’t act collectively. As such, most workers would be willing to enjoy longer vacation time if people around them also did the same.

However, there are no channels to coordinate the changes. The key thing is that an optimal work-life balance makes people happier. And it has been shown that labor markets with legally mandated vacations have higher job satisfaction levels.

Meanwhile, variations in the hours worked by individual workers can be due to three key factors. Here are the three factors.

  • The length of vacation time
  • Unemployment and labor market participation rates
  • Total hours worked per week

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About Author

Founder of With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.

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