I'm British, and I experienced the biggest culture shock when I started working in the US

american flag sleeping

Zoran Milich/Reuters

Americans take a lot less time off from work than the British.

  • The UK and US may share a common language, but the cultural differences between America and Britain can make the two places feel like they're worlds apart.
  • When it comes to work-life balance and careers, there are some major differences between American and British work styles.
  • As a British person living and working in America, one of the biggest culture shocks for me was the attitude Americans have about vacation days and the lack of paid time off available to workers.

America. The land of the free and home of the brave.Advertisement

Where your rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is, except if your pursuit of happiness takes you away from your desk for a few days.

Because when it comes to paid time off, Americans are dealt a pretty unfair hand.

Two years ago, I packed all my belongings into a shipping container, waved goodbye to the English countryside, and moved across the pond to live amongst the bright lights and busy sidewalks of New York.

Born and raised in Birmingham, the UK's second city and one of the most multicultural places in Britain, I was moving to a country I'd already visited plenty of times before (what is it with the UK and family holidays to Orlando?). And with the ever-increasing spread of American culture - from TV and movies to politics - I thought I knew what I was getting myself in for.

Despite all my preparation, and even with a big old book about American customs the relocation company provided, I was woefully under-prepared for the various lifestyle adjustments and cultural differences between my old life in the UK and my new life in the States.Because while we may speak the same language, that's where the similarities end. At least for me, anyway.Advertisement

I've never felt more displaced than when I'm trying to navigate the healthcare system, on the hunt for a decent bar of chocolate, or realizing that Americans will talk to you absolutely anywhere. Stuck in an elevator for 33 floors? Get ready to make an agonizing amount of small talk. Sitting at a bar by yourself? You can bet your next drink that a fellow bar patron will ask how your day has been.


Living the dream

Living the dream

The biggest culture shock though, came when I entered the workforce. It's well documented that the American office culture is pretty different to the way we work back in the UK, in part fueled by the notion of the 'American Dream' — that unwavering belief that absolutely anyone can become successful if they're determined and willing to work hard enough to achieve their dream.

And it seems that an all-work-and-no-play mentality has bred a workplace that's underpinned by a sense of fear that you're never quite working hard enough. And nowhere is this quite as obvious, to me at least, as the American attitude towards vacation days.

In the UK, almost all full-time workers are legally entitled to at least 28 days of paid vacation per year. Most employers will include the eight Bank and public holidays into that figure, which leaves the average British worker with a minimum of 20 days of vacation to use.

At my previous job, I had 25 days' vacation, eight paid Bank holidays, a day off for my birthday, and the opportunity to buy an additional five days off. We worked hard. But we were given adequate time away from the office to rest, reset, and rejuvenate.

So you can imagine my horror when I was offered my first job here in the States and found out my paid time off was an accrued total of 10 days. A measly two weeks, which included both vacation and sick time. And the worst part was the employer seemed to think that was generous. They prefaced the section about PTO with, "we know how hard you work and recognize the importance of providing you with time for rest and relaxation."

Vacation deprivation

Vacation deprivation

To me, 10 days was a deal breaker. But I know I was lucky to have even been offered that.

According to a 2013 study by the Center for Economic Policy Research, the US is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn't mandate any paid vacation for the workforce. Almost one in four Americans have no paid vacations and no paid holidays.

And those who are blessed with time off average just ten days of paid vacation and about six paid holidays per year. That's less than the minimum legal standard for most of all of the world's richest economies — the exception being Japan, which guarantees 10 paid vacation days but no paid holidays, according to the study.

A survey by Glassdoor found that out of those who receive vacation days, only 24% of workers used their full allowance, in part due to a corporate culture that has come to view taking time off as slacking.

For many Americans, the fear of returning to a mountain of work keeps them at their desk instead of the beach. And in a world of "at will" employment, where the work contract can be terminated at any time, almost a quarter of American employees don't want to be seen as replaceable.


Work smarter to work harder

Work smarter to work harder

More hours doesn't always mean more output. Just take a look at Greece and Germany.

According to the Organisation for Co-Operation and Development (OECD) the Greeks work longer hours than any other country in Europe, have an unemployment rate of 23.5% and a GDP of 26 765 US$ per capita. In Germany, they work less hours but are much more productive, with a GDP of 48 943 US$ per capita and an unemployment rate of just 4.1%,

There are multiple studies that show taking time away from work can improve productivity, increase happiness, and spark creativity. In other words, taking time off is a win for everyone: you, your boss, and even the economy.

"If it's simply an issue of not knowing how to spend your time off, this list of well-reviewed places around the world may offer some inspiration. And if you're worried about returning to work with a mountain of emails to tackle, we've got some tips on managing that, too. Now you have no excuse.