Work Ethic

Menstuff® has compiled the following information regarding the American Work Ethic.

The No-Vacation Nation
5 Things SpongeBob SquarePants Can Teach You About Business

The No-Vacation Nation

Of 20 major industrial nations surveyed by, 17 have laws that require a month or more of vacatoin per year.

Vacation Days per Year


Days By Law
Average Taken







United States


AOL Poll Results on 6.30.03

How much time off do you take per year?  (Total votes 120.641)

42% 1-2 weeks.
25% 3-4 weeks
13% 5 weeks or more

Do you use all of your vacation days? ( Total votes 118,766)

Yep, every single one 48%
I'd like to but there's too much work 40%
No I don't want to look like a slacker 12%

If it feels like you're stuck behind your desk on a sunny summer day while the rest of the world is on vacation, that's because you are and it is.

Few other industrialized countries have as little vacation time as America, where there aren't even legal guarantees of vacation time.

Just ask Matthew Mortellaro. Working in his first job out of college, the 23-year-old New York City-based publicist is already disillusioned with the world of work. The reason? He only gets five paid vacation days a year.

Mortellaro's company, which he declined to name, grants five vacation days to its employees after they've been working at the job more than six months. A year later, they get a total of 10 vacation days.

But for the St. Louis native, who often uses his vacation time to go home to visit his family, the short amount of time off has become a sore subject, especially when friends in Europe enjoy a month of vacation each year in their first jobs out of school.

"It kind of annoys me and makes me feel unfulfilled," says Mortellaro. "Is that all my life is about — working? What's the point of working all the time when all you do is work? I want to be able to appreciate it, too."

Mortellaro's experience is typical of many Americans, most of whom get very little vacation time when compared to workers in other industrialized nations. U.S. workers aren't guaranteed any vacation time by law and take an average of 10.2 vacation days a year after three years on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In contrast, workers in the United Kingdom are guaranteed 20 paid vacation days by law and take an average of 25 days off a year. Even in notoriously hard-working Japan, workers have a legal right to 10 days off and take an average of almost 18 vacation days a year.

Vacation Time Shrinking

Now there are signs many Americans are taking even less vacation. With the U.S. unemployment rate continuing to tick upwards, many recruiters and work-life experts say they're noticing workers are becoming more reluctant to take time off.

Nearly half of 730 executives recently surveyed, for instance, said they would not use all of the vacation time they were entitled to this year, according to Cleveland-based search and recruitment firm Management Recruiters International, known as MRI. Of those executives, 58 percent said their workloads were responsible for the decision.

"At the very senior level, you're seeing a complete burnout of vacation time — [executives] are just not taking it," says Patrick Sylvester, chief executive of Banister International, MRI's Philadelphia-based global job placement division. "They're stretched, there's a lot less of them and they're under a lot of pressure to deliver."

And with many companies possibly looking to further cut their employee headcount, many workers are hesitant to leave the office for long periods of time lest they be perceived as slacking off — and expendable.

"That's part of the American workplace culture, devotion as demonstrated through longer days and longer years," says Lonnie Golden, associate professor of economics at Penn State University in Abington, Pa. "When times are good they think it lends itself to promotion, when times are bad they think it gives them security."

Taking Off But Plugging In

Workplace experts say they are also noticing another trend — people going on vacation but not really leaving the office, using some of their time off to check in with the office and clients.

Charly Rok, a 38-year-old New York City-based public relations executive, is one example. Rok sometimes goes away on vacation for a few days at a time, but rarely takes a full week off. And even on the short trips that she does manage to take, she checks her work e-mails and returns phone calls so she doesn't miss any important work.

"It's hard in this industry and in this economy. You need to deliver, you need to be accessible and you need to multi-task," she says.

That kind of vacation can be both good and bad, say experts. While checking into the office does offer advantages — workers won't be returning to a pile of unanswered calls and e-mails for one — it does rob them of valuable time to unplug from their day-to-day routine.

"Vacation should be really defined as a time when we can really turn off those tech work savers and just relax and have fun," says Robert R. Butterworth, psychologist with International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles, who counsels patients with stress-related disorders.

Unfortunately, the mounting workloads of many U.S. employees has made some view a vacation as just a quick break before the inevitable daily grind sets back in.

"It's not really vacation," says Golden. "I call it postponement. You're working like a dog before it, then when you come home [work] is all stocked up."

Grassroots Campaign

Vacation shrinkage has prompted one author, Joe Robinson, to start a grassroots campaign to combat a society moving more and more toward overwork. The aim: To establish a law providing three weeks of vacation for any U.S. worker who has worked at a job for one year, and four weeks after three years.

"The idea is to make a slight shift in how vacations are perceived; that is by making them legal," says Robinson, who started his "Work to Live" campaign two years ago, lobbying for the law with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman in Washington D.C.

The war in Iraq had put the issue on the back burner, says Robinson. But now, with a recently-published book, Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life, he has renewed his push for a minimum-leave law. Robinson says he's gotten 50,000 signatures for the campaign so far.

"There's nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic," he says. "But it's an overwork ethic that's taken hold in the past 10 years or so."

Productive or Just Burnt Out?

Some argue Americans' strong hyper work ethic is what keeps the country's economy going at full throttle.

To be sure, American productivity has been steadily improving in recent years.

But some economists say the long hours that U.S. workers are putting in haven't necessarily lead to productivity gains in all segments of the economy.

For example, manufacturing output per hour actually declined 0.4 percent in the United States in 2001, while countries like Italy, France and the United Kingdom, whose workers routinely take four to five weeks off a year, saw increases, according to the latest figures from the Labor Department.

"It really boils down to how you're measuring productivity," says Penn State's Golden. "If you look over the course of the year or in productivity per hour, Europeans are right there with Americans, if not ahead."

A Heavy Toll

Work experts add that working too much can also take a psychological or health toll on workers, leading to increased absenteeism, poor motivation and, ultimately, burnout.

Some 34 percent of 632 men and women surveyed by health insurer Oxford Health Plans said they have no down time at work. Another 32 percent work and eat lunch at the same time, while 32 percent never leave the building once they arrive at work. Nineteen percent of the workers said their job made them feel older than they are and 17 percent say work causes them to lose sleep at home.

"If you have a job that's very creative and you don't take time off you hit a wall and you need a change," says Butterworth. "The break will allow you to refresh your brain cells."

Alfred Portale, chef and owner of Gotham Bar & Grill in New York, heeds that advice. He routinely takes Friday afternoons off to spend long weekends with his two children before returning to work on Mondays. He also gives his workers at least two or three weeks vacation a year and tries to allow for flexibility if they need time off.

His philosophy: Workers who are happy are loyal and productive.

"Being away from work too much is counterproductive, but being there all the time and getting overworked breeds a lot of [negative] things," he says.

5 Things SpongeBob SquarePants Can Teach You About Business

America's favorite cartoon sea sponge and the rest of the gang from Bikini Bottom offer some surprisingly valuable lessons about life in the workplace.

Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants, with its brightly hued colors and juvenile hijinks, may seem like the last place you should look for business or career advice. But if you take a slightly closer look at SpongeBob's madcap energy and Mr. Krabs' relentless pursuit to sell Krabby Patties, you'll notice some familiar workplace scenarios -- and some surprisingly important lessons.

So what can you learn from the gang from the underwater city of Bikini Bottom? We decided to take a closer look.

1. SpongeBob SquarePants has integrity that every entrepreneur and employee should emulate.

When Mr. Krabs, in one episode titled "The Graveyard Shift," tells his staff that the Krusty Krab will now be open 24 hours a day, SpongeBob is thrilled. In the episode "Just One Bite," when Squidward sneaks into the Krusty Krab in the middle of the night to secretly eat some Krabby Patties, he spots the famed sea sponge and asks why he is there. "I always come here at 3 a.m.," SpongeBob replies. "This is when I count the sesame seeds."

Lisa J. Rinkus, president of LJPR, a West Newton, Mass.-based public-relations firm, says one of her favorite pastimes is hanging out with her daughter after school and watching SpongeBob SquarePants. "During the shows," Rinkus says, "we chat about SpongeBob's incredible work ethic, his ability to work with what he has and make the best of every situation. I can't understand why many parents don't let their kids watch SpongeBob. It's chock full of great lessons -- business and otherwise."

2. Don't stray from your core competency.

In "The Krusty Sponge," a restaurant critic applauds SpongeBob as one of two reasons to visit the Krusty Krab (the Krabby Patty being the first reason). Mr. Krabs is deliriously excited by the idea of promoting SpongeBob as another reason to visit his restaurant. So excited, in fact, that he goes overboard, changing the name of the restaurant to the Krusty Sponge and making perennially disgruntled employee Squidward wear a SpongeBob costume. SpongeBob, meanwhile, is made to run a SpongeBob train outside the restaurant. In effect, the restaurant's main reason for being -- the food -- is ignored. And just as one might expect to happen in real life, customers then become sick after eating the food.

Another example of this is "the episode when Pearl, Mr. Krab's daughter, wants to change the menu and marketing strategy of the Krusty Krab" to be trendier, says Anu V. Murthy, avowed SpongeBob fan and president of Rex, a full-service wholesale intermediary offering agencies access to worker's compensation markets nationwide. "SpongeBob felt absolutely uncomfortable with it because it strayed from the 'core' strategy."

As it turns out, Pearl ended up leaving the restaurant, which returned to normal. "Lesson? Stick to your knitting," Murthy says.

3. Quality counts.

In the episode, "Born Again Krabs," Mr. Krabs forces SpongeBob to sell an old, filthy, germ-infested Krabby Patty that was found under the grill. Mr. Krabs can't stand the idea that this patty, which could have been used to make money, would be allowed to go to waste. However, weeks go by, and the Krusty Krab loses a lot of business until Mr. Krabs, trying to prove the patty is perfectly good, eats the food and winds up in the hospital.

Then there's the "Patty Hype" episode in which SpongeBob starts his own stand, selling "pretty patties" -- Krabby Patties that are different colors. SpongeBob ended up having approximately 46,853 customers. Unfortunately, the colored patties literally make the fish in Bikini Bottom change different colors.

"SpongeBob comes up with a patty that seems to be, on the surface, what everyone wants," Murthy explains. "It was short-lived because, in the end, everyone was [ticked] off because the patties ended up changing and was not what the customers expected."

The lesson entrepreneurs can take away, Murthy says, is that you should "be sincere in what you are selling. Customers aren't idiots. They will learn quickly what you are all about. Long-term strategy is key for customers."

And, of course, we haven't even mentioned Mr. Krab's arch-enemy, Plankton, who is always trying to steal the Krabby Patty formula. Plankton clearly recognizes that the formula's quality would attract customers, but he's too lazy to come up with anything superior on his own. Instead, his restaurant, the Chum Bucket, is recognized throughout Bikini Bottom for serving inferior, pathetic food.

4. You get what you pay for.

When Mr. Krabs shoots a Krusty Krab TV commercial, he shoots it himself, to bring the production costs down, and he pays for the cheap time slot of 3:28 a.m. Not surprisingly, few fish in Bikini Bottom see it.

In "Krabby Land," Mr. Krabs figures he can make a fortune if he has a playground for kids at his restaurant (shade of McDonald's and their playgrounds). It's a mess, cheaply made and not very safe. By the end of the episode, the children have tied up Mr. Krabs and are feeding him lima beans. If you're cheap in a way that insults your customers, you're the one who will likely lose in the end.

5. Don't let your work take over your life.

Joe Wos, executive director of the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh's Museum of Cartoon Art, notes that "with the exception of Patrick, everyone in the show has very defined jobs, and at least half the show revolves around their jobs, which is something you don't see in a lot of cartoons. They take their jobs very seriously in SpongeBob."

Wos adds that in the episodes where SpongeBob "loses his job or spatula, his life falls apart, and if you think about it, that often defines our own situations as well. When we lose our jobs, our world literally falls apart. I think one of the greatest examples of that is the episode where SpongeBob loses his name tag. Literally and figuratively, it's a complete loss of identity."

True enough, when SpongeBob discovers his name tag is gone, he freaks out until he faints. In this animated moment -- at least it can seem this way after the 27th viewing with your kids -- SpongeBob becomes something apart from a simple cartoon on a children's cable channel. It is a cautionary tale for the 21st century businessperson, a warning to everyone, from the CEO down to the lowliest fry cook, that while it's swell to be at one with your career, you can always take things too far.

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