6 major differences between how Americans and Brits work

By Rachel Gillett, Business Insider

  • There are several notable differences between the way Americans and British people work.
  • Thanks to a global economy, some of these trends are beginning to shift.
  • For now, though, expect Americans to put in more hours at work and British people to enjoy more tea breaks.

In a working world that's more global than ever, American workplace trends have begun cropping up in the workplaces of other countries, including the UK.

And, despite some resistance, we see the reverse beginning to happen in the US, too.

Based on anecdotal observation, the differences between the way Americans and British people work appear to be less stark than one might expect.

One trend that's caught on in the UK, for example, is the "sad desk lunch."

Pam Engel, a deputy editor who has worked in Business Insider's New York and London offices, points out that, though it could be the product of working in a busy newsroom, with some exceptions, the people she worked with in the UK mostly ate at their desks.

The "sad desk lunch" as it's come to be known is a fairly common phenomenon in America. As Business Insider's Mark Abadi reports, only one in five Americans spends their lunch break away from their desks. Most people end up eating their midday meal while they continue to work, and others skip the meal entirely.

This trend has apparently caught on in the UK, as well. As the Telegraph reports, two thirds of British workers recently admitted in a survey that they don't always manage to take even 20 minutes for lunch.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "The once-stalwart tradition of a long, liquid lunch is drying up in London."

Of course, other traditions die hard. Here are six differences between the way Americans and British people work, and how some are beginning to shift. 

While Americans and British people are increasingly ordering lunch in, their favorite orders vary

The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian report that office workers in both the UK and the US are increasingly ordering in (or ordering "delivery" as it's commonly referred to in the US, and ordering "takeaway" in the UK) or picking up healthier grab-and-go options for lunch.

Delivery service Deliveroo saw a 163% rise in corporate lunchtime orders in London in a year - the three most popular cuisines were Italian, Japanese, and Thai.

In the US, according to Eater, the three most popular cuisines (not including the "other" category) are chicken, Chinese, and pizza.

British people are entitled to their tea breaks, and they take them quite often — Americans, on the other hand, are lucky if they take a coffee break

According to the US department of labor, federal law doesn't require lunch or short breaks, which, notably, the US government refers to as "coffee breaks."

And as we already learned, Americans generally tend to take few breaks away from their desks.

In the UK, however, workers have the right to one uninterrupted 20-minute rest break during the work day if they work more than six hours a day. "This could be a tea or lunch break," it's specified on Gov.UK.

And while British workers may be skipping their lunch breaks, they still love their tea breaks.

A survey of British employees revealed that the average British worker spends 109.6 hours per year making tea, and tea remains the drink of choice for most.

In fact, though they're less prevalent these days, in the UK, there is a job dedicated entirely to the making of tea for other employees: "Tea lady." These procurers of tea have been called the "unsung heroes" and "heart and sole" of the company.

There is no "coffee dude" equivalent in the US, unless you count the barista at your local Starbucks.

British people tend to put in fewer hours

Engel said that her British colleagues tended to leave work earlier than her American ones.

"I don't think the work ethic is much different - the people I worked with over there all worked hard - but there doesn't seem to be the same sort of complex Americans have with logging the most hours possible to impress people and talk about how busy they are and how much they work," she said.

While Business Insider's Mark Abadi reports that work hours are creeping upwards in the UK, according to a recent estimate, full-time employees in the UK work an average of 42.7 hours a week, which is still fewer than the American average of 47 hours.

Erin Brodwin, a science correspondent who has worked in Business Insider's New York, London, and San Francisco offices, confirmed Engel's observation.

"People in London - at least at the Business Insider offices - come in at 10:30 a.m. and go to the pub at 4:30 p.m. You could hear a pin drop at 5 p.m."

"That said, people actually work during those hours," she said.

British people tend to use this extra time socializing with their coworkers

"British people work hard to play hard, it seems," Brodwin said.

She described the London office as "pretty tight-knit."

At 4:30 p.m. every Wednesday through Friday, Brodwin said between seven and 10 coworkers from the London office would head en-masse to the pub across the street. "The owner knew everyone and would help set up tables just for us," she said.

While she attributed some of the camaraderie to the fact that it's a small office, she also noted that "here in San Francisco, the office is tiny, and no one really hangs out much apart from a tiny crew of us who do trivia."

Research out of the University of Michigan may back this theory up. As Christian Science Monitor reports, Americans are less likely than those in other parts of the world to socialize with their fellow employees beyond the workplace.

In the UK, "happy hour is a big deal," Brodwin said.

British people tend to take more vacation time

"I would say the biggest difference I noticed is the vacation time - Brits take way more vacation than Americans do, and I believe their time off is mandated by law," Engel said.

According to Gov.UK, almost all workers in the UK are legally entitled to at least 5.6 weeks of paid "holiday" per year. If you work five days a week, you're entitled to at least 28 days of paid annual leave a year.

According to research by YouGov, British workers aren't shy about using their vacation time. Out of 22 major countries, including the US, British people are the most likely to say they will take all of their vacation time.

As Abadi reports, the US doesn't legally require companies to offer paid vacation time, and while many companies offer two weeks to their employees, the average worker only ends up using about half of their time.

In fact, British people get more paid time off than Americans in general — especially if you're a new parent

In recent years in the US, there has been an outcry among workers, labor activists, and certain business leaders for a federal paid leave policy for families. Currently, in the US, there is no such thing.

The reason the US is the only developed nation not to have it - the UK offers up to 37 weeks of paid leave to be shared by parents if they meet certain eligibility criteria - comes down to outdated American ideals.

That trend appears to be shifting.

In 2015, 12% of private sector workers had access to paid family leave through their employers in the US. Now that number is up to 14%. In the span of just a few years, the US has seen numerous private sector companies expand their parental leave offerings.

On the state level, the US now boasts five states and the District of Columbia - up from just three states in 2015 - that offer or will offer paid family leave programs.

With the FAMILY act before Congress, the Trump administration's support of a paid leave policy, and Americans' overwhelming support of paid leave policies, the pieces all appear to be in place - it's just a matter of time before the US catches up to the rest of the world.

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