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Working—and Not Working—In Europe

By Victoria Stachowski (with Alice Underwood)

On the fourth Thursday of November, instead of watching football and eating pumpkin pie, I was in the office. Fortunately, the employee restaurant was considerate of the American members of the workforce and served turkey and stuffing as one of the options on that day. They did a pretty good job with it, too.

One of the unsettling things about living and working in a foreign country is that many of the holidays from one's childhood are not celebrated. Thanksgiving is a particularly North American holiday (held in October in Canada); the four-day holiday weekend is something I truly miss. Naturally the Fourth of July is irrelevant—although some people do shoot fireworks then over Zurich—as are the American Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving. Halloween hasn't traditionally been celebrated in Switzerland either, though it's making inroads in some places.

On the other hand, Easter has more impact on the work schedule than in the U.S. Both Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays, resulting in a four-day weekend. A few additional religious holidays, including Pentecost Monday (Whitmonday) and Assumption Day, also mean time away from the office. May 1 is a holiday for the workers, the continental version of Labor Day, but instead of outdoor barbecues there are often political demonstrations. So, on the continent, April and May are full of holidays.

The canton of Zurich has a few unique half-day holidays: Sechseläute, a half-day festival to celebrate the end of winter, during which a snowman is "exploded" on the side of a mountain; and Knabenschiessen, a half-day holiday in September featuring a shooting contest for boys and girls. Other Swiss cantons, and other European countries, of course have their own individual holidays.

How does this all compare to the holiday schedule in the U.S.? My count shows nine full days of holidays in Switzerland. American companies, depending on company policy, often give about that many. One point to keep in mind, though, is that in Switzerland (the practice differs across Europe) a holiday such as Christmas or May 1 that happens to fall on a weekend does not generate a day off work, whereas many U.S. companies would give the preceding Friday or following Monday as a holiday. Another point is that in my Swiss company, full-time employment currently means 41.25 hours per week. The length of the workweek varies from one European country to the next . Also, in many European countries, positions that would normally be "salaried" in the U.S. may be "hourly" positions. While working an hourly position often entails the inconvenience of punching a time clock, it generally also means that extra work hours accumulated can be taken as "comp time" later on.

Holidays and the length of the workweek to some extent reflect the culture of a country. They're determined by what the people, or at least a large portion of them, consider important. They also demonstrate the influence of various economic theories. For example, the idea that the unemployment problem may be mitigated by legislating a shorter workweek is being hotly debated in France.

Differences from the American standard of "two weeks vacation per year" reflect cultural and theoretical influences as well. In my Swiss company, entry-level employees automatically receive 22 days of vacation. Senior employees receive more depending on their position and age. It's the law in Switzerland that each employee must take at least two weeks of vacation a year. Moreover, the employee handbook of my company explains that, in the interest of the health of the employee, it is recommended that "two weeks be taken together."

When I first heard this during my initial interview, I heard nothing else for the next ten minutes, because it seemed so outrageously wonderful. What would I do with five weeks of vacation? How could I possibly fill so much time? I have since learned how, a portion going, of course, to traveling between here and the States. And now having the larger amount of time strikes me as a requirement to civilized living. For me at least, it eases the pain of missing all those football games on Thanksgiving Day.