Reports greet us from across the pond that US corporations, traditionally Scrooge-like as far as paid holidays go, may be starting to review their work culture. The chief executive of Netflix has introduced what he calls “unlimited vacations”, meaning that staff can take a break whenever they feel like it. As long as the work gets done, he says, staff can do it when they choose.
This sounds like good news for idleness from one of the very few nations on earth where workers have no legal right to paid holidays. In the UK, employees are offered 5.6 weeks paid holiday each year. In the States you’d be lucky to get two. And such is the ferocity of the Protestant work ethic that even to take that miserable allowance is often frowned upon by co-workers and bosses.
Overwork has serious consequences for your health. A friend in Manhattan regularly regales me with tales of middle-aged brokers dropping dead from heart attacks. How many high achievers are divorced and estranged from their children? The American lust for toil has long been criticised by philosophers. “The breathless haste with which they work... is already beginning to infect old Europe,” observed Nietzsche of the Americans in 1882. “Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience.”
We Europeans have always instinctively understood the need to do nothing on a regular basis. The Greeks, the Romans and the medievals ensured the calendar was studded with plenty of feast days on which work was not permitted.
And the latest science suggests the brain actually needs idling time. A recent publication by research scientist Andrew Smart called Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing defends idleness. By doing nothing, he says, you activate what is called the brain’s “default mode network” and it gets busy repairing itself.
The question remains though: will the “unlimited vacations” policy make a blind bit of difference? If the guy next to you doesn’t take a holiday, will you? After all, in American corporate life, there are two categories of human being: winners and losers. Master of the Universe Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, called his autobiography simply Winning. And Welch is the heir to the cultural legacy started by GE founder Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb, which banished darkness, so inconvenient to work.
Yes, the Calvinist culture goes pretty deep. And although I am opposed to totalitarian socialism, it is perhaps a good thing that European governments are less libertarian than the States when it comes to imposing laws around holidays on companies.
A new more relaxed approach could come from female leaders. Arianna Huffington recently criticised what she called the “time macho” culture and encouraged female workers to “lean back” before they lean in. And US journalist and campaigner Barbara Ehrenreich told me that we need a “serious movement to reclaim our time”. Sisters, make it so.