Who needs a break?

Canadians do. We’re the fourth-hardest workers in the world.

Who needs a break?If you’re not proud enough of your country already, here’s another reason to stand tall: we Canadians work harder than almost every other country in the world. Thanks to BlackBerries and cottages wired for the Internet, we check voice mail from the beach and snatch holidays on the run. We’re so dedicated, Forbes magazine recently ranked us as the fourth- hardest-working country in the developed world. When you take into account both hours worked and employment rates, we handily beat out the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Japan and most of the rest of Europe. The only countries that out-work us are Iceland (which ranked at No. 1), New Zealand and Switzerland (which tied for second), and Denmark (which ranked third). In fact, some say, it’s starting to look like Canadians may be working too hard.

Given our proclivity for work, it won’t be much of a shocker to discover that Canadians get less vacation time than almost any other country. We now get 19 days of paid vacation time a year, on average, while our French cousins receive a staggering 7.6 weeks of paid leave per year. Spaniards get 30 days, Italians get 31, those famously industrious Germans get 27, and the Brits—who helped birth the Protestant work ethic—earn 26, according to a recent global survey by travel website Expedia.

Canada vs. the world

Still, while Canada and the U.S. receive some of the developed world’s shortest paid holidays (the average American gets just 13 days), North Americans look like layabouts compared with the Japanese. They receive just 15 days holiday, and 92 per cent of them choose not to take all of their time (compared to 24 per cent in Canada). Last year, the average worker in Japan took just eight days vacation.

Sadly, it’s a trend worth watching. As the recession deepens, Canadian workers will look increasingly Japanese, leaving a growing pot of unused vacation days on the table, workplace behaviour experts suggest.

Less leisure, more workFor starters, the scarcity of jobs and resources heightens competitiveness within the workplace: suddenly, distinguishing one’s self from the pack—say, by sacrificing vacation time—will seem a lot more important, explains Karl Aquino, an expert in organizational behaviour at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. And the fear of being perceived as underperforming—“which can be quite acute during a recession”—may deter others from taking a vacation, he adds. (Further, management may realize you are expendable while you were gone.) Meanwhile, if companies are reducing staff, “those left behind will have to pick up the slack,” says Aquino. “This may require them to learn new skills and expand their job responsibilities—which can take time. As a result, they will forgo vacation to do so.”

While downtime may be sharply reduced in the coming months, its erosion in Canada is actually part of a larger 10-year trend, says sociologist Gilles Pronovost, professor emeritus in the department of leisure, culture and tourism at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the time Canadians spent working steadily decreased, and leisure hours rose accordingly, Pronovost explains. But in the late 1990s, that trend sharply reversed, “annihilating” two decades of gains. So far, the 21st century has been “catastrophic” to both leisure and work, he says. In the eight-year period from 1998 to 2005, leisure time decreased by two hours and the average workweek increased by 1.7 hours.

Currently Canadians, like Australians, log a 33-hour workweek on average (when you include both full-time and part-time workers), topping the U.S. and Britain, who work a weekly 32.8 and 32.1 hours respectively, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The French, meanwhile, work an average of 29 hours per week, Norwegians, 28, and the Dutch, 27. Within Canada, Albertans logged the longest hours: three hours more than in B.C., and four hours more than in Quebec, according to Statistics Canada.

Various factors are to blame for our growing workweeks, says University of Waterloo sociologist Sue Shaw, including our new “electronic leash”—consisting of cellphones, BlackBerries, email and WiFi—that allows us to work anytime, anywhere, and an increasingly competitive work culture, “which values very high levels of work commitment, dedication and a willingness to work long hours.”

But that explanation is incomplete, says Jody Heymann, director of McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy. After all, the same electronic gadgets and go-go pace exist in Europe, where leisure hasn’t been sacrificed, she says. The bulk of the world’s 10 most competitive countries—including Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands—guarantee markedly more vacation time than Canada, she notes.

Experts say the big reason for our dwindling leisure time is that in North America, we’ve collectively devalued downtime because it’s simply not seen as productive. Which is all well and good, but Toronto physician Mel Borins says the low value we place on leisure is likely causing us mental and physical harm. Citing two major U.S. longitudinal studies, Borins says men who take regular holidays are 32 per cent less likely to die from a heart attack than those who do not, while women show half the risk. “Vacations also improve workplace efficiency, burnout decreases significantly, and people are less likely to take sick time after returning from a vacation,” he adds, noting that he’s seen rashes, persistent headaches and pains disappear in patients returning from holiday.

At least we try to make the most of our limited vacation time, by breaking it up and mixing work and pleasure, according to University of Guelph tourism professor Statia Elliot (who wrote to Maclean’s in an email time-stamped 11 p.m., six hours before leaving for a working vacation in Honolulu). Currently, Canadians take five “leisure trips” per year, averaging two nights each, with 80 per cent of them domestic, she says.

The recession may sharpen that trend too, keeping Canadians on shorter, mixed trips closer to home, says Waterloo tourism professor Stephen Smith. This year, Canadian tour operators reported a 15 per cent drop in travel business and airlines are predicting combined global losses topping $9 billion, thanks largely to the growing numbers who opt to spend their leisure time locally.

This summer, for instance, Bob Lai, an exhaustively well-travelled 26-year-old Vancouver engineer, embarked on a weekend “staycation” with a group of friends: eight twentysomething working professionals and one medical student. The goal? “To enjoy a vacation as a group together, and spend as little money as possible,” Lai explains. They hit Vancouver hot spots that, as locals, they generally ignore. A brewery tour at Granville Island, for example, preceded a picnic at a nearby park with meats and cheeses bought from its labyrinthine food market. They also biked the seawall surrounding Stanley Park and stopped for a swim at Third Beach, a local treasure overlooking Burrard Inlet, near Siwash Rock. “We were shocked at how nice the beach was,” says Lai, as he and his friends never usually venture past the west side beaches surrounding Kitsilano.

La dolce vita, right here at home. Now imagine what they could do if they had 38 days leave—like they do in Paris.

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