Dispatches from the South: On the Job

When I moved here, I expected a lot of differences, and assumed these differences would follow me into my place of employment. But my move from a US to a UK work environment was not nearly as much of a culture shock as my move from a public sector job to private industry. After 25 years as a civil servant, private industry came as quit a shock. To quote a famous line from Ghostbusters: “You don’t know what it’s like in the private sector; they expect results!”

Also, I fell into a good job almost as soon as I landed here and have stayed with the company ever since, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the nuances of the British corporate ethos (where, if rumours are to be believed, you work a standard 70-hour week) opposed to the Americans (who look upon a 70-hour week as a sort of vacation).

I think both countries share a similar insanity when it comes to work/life balance; mainly that your work is your life and, therefore, they balance. What is very different, and what I do feel qualified to comment on, is the amount of holiday they receive.

I was truly shocked when I was offered an entry-level position at my current company and was told it came with five weeks vacation. In the States, most jobs I had offered a week to start, and then upped it to two after a requisite number of years. Not that it mattered; I, like many of the people I knew, never really went anywhere anyway, at least not on a regular basis. My annual leave was mostly used up a day at a time as a legal method of skiving off, and if I took a full week, I often just stayed at home.

In the UK, the five weeks I am allotted do not carry over into the next year, so using them is mandatory, and not frowned upon as it sometimes is in the States. And when Brits take a week or two off, they go somewhere. I have been to more places in the past seven years than in the 47 that preceded them, so even though they still expect a lot from you here, there are some added perks.

Another thing that is very different in the UK, and which also took me by surprise, is the way they treat birthdays in the office. In the US, you could happily forget your birthday and if someone in the office did know about it, they might offer to take you to lunch or buy you a beer after work. Here, it is up to you to supply birthday goodies for everyone in the office. This, as you might imagine, makes it much harder to forget your birthday because there are any number of people waiting for you to supply their morning Danish.

It seems an odd tradition, but if you think about it, the purchased/freebie goody ratio evens out over the course of the year, and you almost always get to have an éclair or a slice of cake with your tea.

So, considering that you get more holiday, work marginally less hours and enjoy a sporadic supply of free cakes, work life in the UK is, in my view, better than it is in the US.


  1. avatar says

    Karen: Yes, the five weeks holiday came as a pleasant surprise.

    Matt: I’ve been here 7 years and it seemed to be a long-standing tradition even when I started, so I’d say 10 years at least.

  2. avatarandy says

    I work for a large multinational computer company (not IBM!). My company starts @ 5 weeks & moves to 6 after 10 years. Also as an extra perk in my final year (I’m 59) I go to 4 days a week on full pay – as well as the leave! Relations in States appear to have 10 day max – pitiful….

  3. avatar says

    Mike, you are a very lucky man.

    I get two weeks at my new job. Not that I’m complaining, by American standards it’s generous and I’m grateful for it.

    But five weeks… damn.

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