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Switzerland

Nestlé Honcho To Europeans: Your Vacation Obsession Is Killing The Continent

Essay: Nestlé board chairman Peter Brabeck used an exchange during the recent World Economic Forum in Davos to take a dig at Europeans who aren't as devoted to work as he is. Of course, some also don't pull in seven-figure salaries.

Peter Brabeck at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Peter Brabeck at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Simon Koch

ZURICH -- Peter Brabeck sure doesn't hold back on the subject of the euro crisis. Perfectly groomed, impeccably tanned, the former CEO and current board chairman of Nestlé expressed his view in an unofficial exchange during the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: "The problem with Europe's competitiveness would be solved if people worked a little more."

One month before the vote in Switzerland on a popular referendum calling for six weeks' annual vacation for everyone, it looks as if those in business circles who oppose the initiative have found a prominent ally. Though he went out of his way in Davos to single out Swiss conscientiousness at the workplace, Brabeck's point summed up in a nutshell is this: live for your work and, when possible, do overtime - and anybody who doesn't get that is a loser.

Maybe the pill would have been easier to swallow if the chairman of the giant multinational company hadn't added in a contemptuously joking tone: "A little more work never hurt anybody, really." Either way, it came across as bitter as a cup of Nescafé, particularly from someone who earns $9.4 million a year.

But let's be honest here. Brabeck is at least setting an example. Still working at 67, the Nestlé chairman is worth somewhere in the $110 million range, according to Bilan magazine. He's even molded his views into a moral principle: "When you tell people that one of the main goals is not having to work anymore, you're destroying the whole meaning of life," he told Swiss-French TV in a didactic and even slightly emotional tone. Again, his message is: live for your work and, when possible, do overtime. Don't get it? Well then, you're a big loser. As far as Brabeck is concerened, that's life's big lesson.

It's nice that Brabeck has words of praise for the Swiss model, but to reduce it to the amount of time spent at work is something only a CEO would do. Sure, we work harder than the French or Germans, and can be proud of that. In 2010, a Swiss worked on average 1,931 hours (Source: Swiss Federal Statistical Office). By comparison, according to a study published on Jan. 10 by the French Coe-Rexecode, the French worked 1,679 hours and are on the bottom rung of the European list.

There are some surprises, though, when you look at the hours worked in European countries. The Germans – who work 1,904 hours per year and have Europe's strongest economy – don't actually top the list. That position is held by Romania, followed by other Eastern European countries. In Bucharest and its surrounding area, average work time per year is 2,095 hours.

Even the Greeks work more than the Swiss do – exactly 40 hours more per year. So it's clear from those examples that working a lot doesn't necessarily determine how competitive a country is. Brabeck is overlooking one of the big strengths of the Swiss work force.

If the tiny country of Switzerland occupies a top rank in the world economy, it's not because of hours spent at the office or on the factory floor: it's because ethics, loyalty and tradition also play a role in producing excellent work. Nursing these characteristics is a delicate process. Boosting productivity requires an optimum environment – an environment where overtime and longer working hours are in fact toxic.

Read the original story in German

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