Leisure, Austrian Style

In the end, quality of life may be about taking your time to do the things that matter

The extravagantly relaxing interior of the Café Central on Herrengasse | Photo: Andreas Präfcke

Vienna is by now world-famous for its consistently high “Quality of Life” ratings, whether by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the annual Mercer Study or even Monocle magazine (where they smartly ask, “How easy is it to get a drink at 2 in the morning?”).

While it is difficult to put your finger on exactly what qualifies as quality of life – a raging debate on internet blogs these days – one thing is for sure: the Austrians jealously guard their leisure time. And they have constructed a society that highly prizes and protects this priceless asset.

As the saying goes, “You can always make more money, but you can never get back your time.”  This value can be found in many aspects of Austrian life, helping to explain why Austrians work fewer hours, take more and longer vacations and – some even argue – live longer and happier lives than much of the developed world.

Critics will point to the gap in total GDP and therefore loss of income and purchasing power that such a leisure-hungry society incurs from its way of life.  Last year for example, the U.S. Conference Board reported that U.S. labor productivity increased by 2.5% in 2009, and is expected to grow by 3% in 2010, while Austrian productivity growth turned negative in 2009, falling 1.6%, with a mild recovery of 0.9% in 2010.  (Austria trailed the enlarged 27-EU, which saw a 1.1% decline in 2009 and will recover with a gain of 1.9% in 2010).

The reason for the gap?  U.S. firms were much more aggressive in slashing jobs and squeezing more out of those remaining, crimping further still the amount of leisure time the average American can enjoy. If you’re working, you’re too busy; if you’re unemployed, you’re spending all your time looking for a job.

If you look a little deeper, though, you find that Austria and Europe are much more competitive when the measure is GDP per hour worked, particularly in the Benelux countries. And the French, even taking 40 days off per year and working a 37 hour work week, have a productivity only 2% lower than the United States.

Austria’s productivity per hour is only 11% lower than that of the U.S., ranking a very respectable 9th in the world, just behind Ireland, 4% higher than the U.K. and EU-15 average, and 5% higher than the Euro Area Average.  So Austrians are very productive – on average – when they are working.  Long hours are not foreign to the Viennese office place, where punctuality rules, quality of work is valued, and the talk is direct when expectations are not met.

So if standard of living is all about return on investment and ever-higher growth, GDP, personal assets and HNWI’s (high net worth individuals), then it’s America you’ll look up to.  One leading business magazine recently featured a debate where a professor at a U.S. University calculated that Europeans could increase their take-home pay by 53% by increasing working hours (thereby shortening vacations and time off) by 32%, up to the level of hours worked by Americans — which he was confident they would do if only they knew the numbers.

But if you want to live in a society where money is not the only measure of value, where having the time to spend on the things you care about, then Austria wins hands down. Here you learn the virtues of leaning back a little, ring-fencing that time for yourself and keeping the stress levels to a minimum (hence the word “hektisch” as a favorite word of complaint for the Viennese, a condition they are keen to avoid).

In May and June every year, the Austrian art of planning time off comes to the fore.  With so many holidays on Thursdays and Mondays, the Austrian therefore plans how to best exploit the situation, to build a block of leisure time.  Chiefly, this involves great use of the “Fenstertag,” or bridge days – those non-weekend days right next to public holidays.  It’s always amazing how light the traffic is the days before a mid-week holiday, and how absolutely empty the roads are during rush hour of the Fenstertag itself.  You feel almost delusional if you leave home at 8am, and arrive 15 minutes later at work, a commute that usually takes 45 minutes.

On these bridge days, it’s rare to find more than a few token employees in the office.  If you must be there, with silent hallways and closed doors, you inevitably ask yourself, “Why me?  Why must I work, while the rest of Austria plays?”

In May and June, it is possible to take time off between the Fenstertage, to maximize the total elapsed time off work by linking the public holidays, bridge days and the weekends for a nice 10+ days out of the office.  Warum nicht?  Americans in contrast get to enjoy only one real Fenstertag a year, the Friday after Thanksgiving, and this is by no means a given from most companies.

It’s a known fact that Austrians scramble every Friday afternoon to get as much of the shopping in before the stores close (the limited opening hours of shops is itself a testament to everyone’s right to leisure time), so as to maximize free time between Friday work and Monday morning.  Workers also leave early to get a jump on weekend travel plans, or simply meet up with friends for a coffee or beer.  In fact, the Friday leaving time gets earlier and earlier as the weather gets warmer and warmer.  Any one here for long knows it’s pointless to try to do business on a Friday after 14:00.

This short Friday may feel a bit like cheating the system to an American, but in fact the official Austrian work week ends at 1pm on Friday, so the Friday half day is one of those cleverly regulated, inserted rules to expand leisure time.  One can even come in earlier than normal and leave before lunch, in a type of “flex time” setup for Friday.  Yes, the American worker likes to enjoy Friday as the last working day of the week, but that is invariably late in the afternoon, after the full work day, out in a bar or restaurant in the typical “TGIF” celebration.

Of course, Americans won’t complain, as long as they don’t know what they are missing. And until they have lived abroad, most simply dismiss reports of such arrangements as malicious rumor. Still, some American companies in the U.S have started to implement “summer hours” as an employee benefit, which shows that things can change.

My Austrian colleagues jealously guard their weekend time from anything having to do with work.  If the company wants to organize something social with associates, to boost morale or celebrate good results, it must be done on the weeknight, preferably starting at 6-ish, to minimize disruption to free time with family or friends later that night. It is also a generally accepted principle that you should not organize a social event with colleagues on the weekend.  In the US, this is standard – it’s totally acceptable to set up a company weekend event, taking in a baseball game or enjoying a meal together at a restaurant.  People accept that company social time can and will cut into and even supercede personal time, because one “owes that” to the organization. Regardless that the loyalty – particularly in down times – isn’t always returned.

In America, when you take leave, you are expected to have arranged all details of your job so that work can proceed seamlessly without you for that week.  In Europe, one only need mention that “I’m on vacation that week” and that is enough of an “excuse” for your colleagues to understand that “my work will not get done over that time. Period.”  In high performing companies, it is also the unspoken signal for colleagues to jump in and cover for you, as you are expected to do for them.

The café is a strong symbol for the value of leisure time in Austria.  Indeed, many urban Americans are envious of the “café culture” in Europe as a whole, and seek to import it.  The idea that you can sit around and reflect on the froth of your latte and wile away the time, doing very little other than reading or gossiping with someone, during the day, in broad daylight, is fascinating for Americans.

There was literally no place to do such a thing in the USA — until the relatively recent arrival of Starbucks now dotting every street corner in some cities and the opening of huge bookstores where lounging on furniture and reading are actually encouraged.  But even with these new social places, it is a very foreign concept to an American that one can relax in a place for as long as you’d like without having to continuously order food or drink.

In an Austrian café you can come and pass the time for as long as you want; one cup of coffee reserves you a table.  Every American lives by the unwritten rule that if you want to stay in a bar or restaurant, you must “pay your way” or leave – because the value of making money is put above the value of relaxation.  Likewise, the fact that the waiter will not bring the bill until asked is an additional sort of “protection” of the right to relaxation, to enjoying yourself as long as you please.

Vienna is also blessed with a number of great public parks and gardens, where “ganz Wien” spends large amounts of leisure time, particularly on Sundays and public holidays.  Most are very well maintained, and feature plantings and landscapes that require nurturing over long periods of time.  In fact, the amount of care, attention and money put into these places is astounding for public gardens, yet they are open to all – not only for VIPS, weddings and private ceremonies.

The benches are also very well maintained and plentiful, which makes relaxing there just too easy.  I’ve learned from Austrian friends that the public gardens budget for the city of Vienna is maintained in good times and bad, often not the case for other Europen cities.  It is a real joy for an American to walk through such places – the Mall in Washington, D.C. is nice and open, as is Central Park in NYC, but these tend to be the “low maintenance” type of plantings and landscapes, which cost far less to maintain. And even then, these are exceptions.

Many Austrians are alarmed at the typical American tourist itinerary, sometimes featuring one grand city per day, and constant movement. The reason is of course that the average American holiday is no longer than one week at a time.  A two-week holiday would normally require 6 months to 1 year advance notice to your superiors.  And in this day and age of “rightsizing” and outsourcing, many Americans are afraid to simply be away from the office longer than a week, lest you give your boss an idea of how life could go on without you.

In contrast, a real, legitimate holiday by an Austrian does not begin with anything less than two weeks.  And taking three weeks off can also be done with enough lead time.  One executive I knew took 4 weeks off every July to return to his family’s summer home in Denmark.

But what truly symbolizes the Austrian value of leisure time is the fact that by law every employee is entitled to five weeks vacation (in addition to all the public holidays), whether they’ve worked for the company for six months or 6 years. It would take the normal American at least 15 or more years at a company to get anywhere close to that level.   And if you change companies in America, you start again with about two weeks and start to build up your tenure and vacation time all over again – even at age 50.

So it’s not hard to see why Americans marvel at the Viennese way of life, as it is such a stark contrast to how unprotected their own free time is back home.  It’s why, again, even the most hardened American conservative will openly admit, in a slightly envious tone, how life is well-lived and savored here, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the public policies that make it all possible.

It is this art of living well, where leisure time is plentiful, and stubbornly and adamantly preserved for all, that keeps Austria among the very special places in the American imagination.

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