Same language, different attitudes

Aug 30 2005 by Print This Article

Will the British ever be as committed to work as the Americans? With a spate of research highlighting high levels of apathy and laziness among the workers of UK PLC, possibly not.

But our reticent work ethic does not only come to light under the scrutiny of research. Talk to almost any US expat living in the UK and they will tell you how amazed they are by our attitude to work.

It's not that they think we are lazy or lacking in ambition, it's just that in their eyes, we have our priorities wrong.

Americans live to work, we work to live. Their vacations are to be earned; our holidays are seen as a birthright

Americans live to work, we work to live. Their vacations are to be earned; our holidays are seen as a birthright. The disparity is even more palpable to those who have lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic.

American businesswoman Mary Selfe, who now lives in London with her English husband, first experienced the divide while working for a large multinational firm in Boston, Massachusetts.

She says, "Like many people in the US I was brought up on the understanding that you had to earn time off, and accomplish things in order to go on vacation.

"Holidays were not an automatic right. Some weeks I would put in 65 hours – I knew it wasn't going to last, and at the end I would look back and see it as a real achievement.

"But my British colleagues working with me at the time thought this was a bizarre way to live, and actually felt sorry for me. Clearly, working so hard was not popular with them."

Her comments appear to bear out many of the claims made by Craig Storti, author of the book Americans At Work – A Guide to the Can Do People.

His explanation for the differences is that American workers have a constant need to achieve, which is stronger than the desire for material possessions.

"What they actually care about, why they feel so compelled to acquire things is what the ability to have things says about a person, " he says.

But the Brits weren't always so different. Many remember vividly the 'work hard play hard' ethos that dominated the late 80s and 90s.

As a public relations account executive working for a global agency Nicola Hunt recalls that long hours era as a time of fun.

She says, "I was working on a pan European campaign which required frequent overseas trips, so I often had to be in the office very early. We also regularly worked evenings and Sunday mornings, and it simply didn't bother us. We enjoyed it – it was fun."

So did hard work go out of fashion? Or has the attitude of the British 'live to work' generation been stifled by the concerted efforts of the government to impose family-friendliness and work-life balance in the workplace?

"In the carefully managed and controlled work environment that we have today, there are more boundaries and less space, and that can have a stifling effect on people's self development," Hunt said.

Certainly a large proportion of bosses and staff complain that they are working with colleagues who do not pull their weight.

So are they lazy, or does the environment they work in simply not allow them to pull it in a way they would like?

Mary Selfe is more sceptical. "You don't have to work 60 hours a week to feel you have achieved. You can work 40 hours a week and do well.

"What is lacking in the UK is that work ethic with a smile; a positive attitude to your job rather than trepidation.

"Having lived in the UK for some time I am finally beginning to understand the differences.

"There are clearly many people in this country who are driven and who want to achieve, but this is counterbalanced by a large number of people who don't enjoy their job, but aren't motivated enough to do anything about it."

Older Comments

The critical difference is that Americans DON'T HAVE A CHOICE whether or not to take time off. The balance of power in the US is skewed so far in favor of employers that people are afraid to ask for time off.

I work in Europe now. I have a higher salary and with more time for ME, a better quality of life. So what if I pay more in tax. I'm not planning to head back to the U.S. any time soon.

Ed London (ex Boston)

America likes to paint itself as a country of independent thinkers, that people are allowed to freely express themselves. However, if you try exerting your First Amendment rights at most companies, you will be immediately branded as 'not a team player.'

And now that I think about it, that's actually a very American trait. It gets drummed into you since high school. The biggest American obsession since you become a teenagers is none other than 'fitting in.' If you are somehow different from the rest, you get ostracized. That problem gets compounded after you graduate, when today's American employers dictate that the ones who get most rewarded are the conformists.

Yes, it is those people who play according to corporate rules, who do not make a fuss, who go along with everything who work 70 hour work weeks who do get promoted into higher levels of management. Only you'd never suspect that when so many job postings say the company wants 'self-motivated, independent thinkers.'

Many Americans dare not find ways of doing their jobs more efficiently. Instead, they and their peers put in countless hours of face time, and are most definitely connected back to their workplace with Blackberries and other portable devices. Anything less than that marks you as a candidate for the next downsizing or outsourcing, even if you have been loyal.