American workers love to work. Or perhaps they're afraid not to.
A 2010 survey indicated that the average American accrues 18 vacation days and uses only 16. The average French worker takes more than twice the vacation time. To some, this statistic encapsulates the difference between American and European workers. We're productive. They're lazy. In fact, it might say the opposite. Europeans understand that breaks improve workplace efficiency. We mistakenly believe that more hours will always increase output, while ignoring the clear evidence: The secret to being an effective worker is not working too hard.
In 1999, a Wall Street insurance company called New Century Global wanted to improve efficiency. They tapped an unlikely source for help: The Cornell University Ergonomics Research Laboratory. Most people consider "ergonomics" synonymous with groovy chair designs. But the official definition is the study of people's efficiency in the workplace. Cornell's lab is one of the country's most famous research centers for studying hardware and software for office productivity. It conducted a 10-week study at New Century Global with a computer program that reminded workers to keep good posture and take short breaks.
Their finding: "Workers receiving the alerts were 13 percent more accurate on average in their work than coworkers who were not reminded."
Eleven years later, we don't need computer software to remind us not to work. The Internet does that just fine, thanks. One study found that "Internet misuse" costs U.S. companies more than $178 billion annually in lost productivity. Another put Web-related losses at $5,000 per employee per year. Yet another found a small company could be losing 15 percent of its profits due to email and social media abuse.