5 things about working in Switzerland that surprised me as an American

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

As of this August I will have been working in Switzerland for two years! In this case, time does not fly — the last year has felt very, very, very long. I started at my current job on August 2, 2019, which means that I’d only been around for seven months when we shifted abruptly to telework. How precious that sliver of normalcy feels now.

As an American who had never worked previously in another country (besides an unpaid, informal internship in Beijing the summer of my sophomore year in college), I was intrigued by how the work culture in Switzerland might differ from that of the United States. Even though I work for an international organization, we’re more closely associated with the country of Switzerland itself than most others in this space, both in the work that we do and in how others perceive us.

Below are some of the most interesting things that have jumped out at me since joining a “Swiss” organization.

1. We have a month of paid vacation and unlimited sick leave.

In my first job out of college in the States, I had 2 weeks of vacation a year and 10 days of paid sick leave. And in my last job before I left the States, I had 3 weeks of vacation and 12 days of sick leave, which was considered generous.

Now, I have 25 days of vacation, also known as annual leave. We also get around 9 days off per year for various public holidays at both the national and cantonal level, which rounds out to a little over a month off. A lot of Europeans will take off 2 or 3 weeks in a row in the summer, especially during August. In fact, my employer encourages us to take at least one holiday a year that lasts at least 2 weeks, so that we’re able to sufficiently unplug from work and recharge.

Sick leave is unlimited in principle. However, if you need to take off 3 or more days in a row due to illness, then a doctor’s note is required.

Last year I didn’t do a good job of taking all the vacation days that I was allotted, and most of them didn’t carry over the new year, so I think I lost at least 10 days. Ouch!

2. Health insurance is not tied to employment.

Under Swiss law, we are all legally required to purchase private health insurance. My coworker described it to me as “highway robbery” when I first arrived, and I think she is right. My monthly premium for one person is ridiculous at 420 francs, and I have an annual franchise of 2,500 francs, which means I need to pay at least this much out of pocket before my health insurance will reimburse me for most expenses.

In DC, my health insurance was through my employer, a nonprofit that negotiated a very good rate for its staff. Here are some examples of costs and how they compare; keep in mind that the conversion rate is approximately 1 CHF = 1.1 USD.

Monthly premium: USD 30 (medical + dental + vision) vs. CHF 420 (medical only)

Therapy per session: USD 10 (copay) vs. CHF 120 (entirely out of pocket)

Urgent care clinic visit: USD 50 (copay) vs. CHF 400 (entirely out of pocket)

Dental cleaning: USD 0 vs. CHF 140 (50% out of pocket)

Eye exam: USD 0 vs. CHF 120 (entirely out of pocket)

On the one hand, I think it’s good that people in Switzerland don’t lose their health insurance when they lose their jobs. On the other hand, health insurance in Switzerland is objectively terrible.

3. Working part-time is common and voluntary.

Flexible working schedules are more common in Switzerland. I’ve noticed that instead of saying that they work part-time, people tend to be very specific and say “I work 80%” or “I work 60%”.

Many working mothers at my organization work 4 days a week. Usually the day they take off is Wednesday, because for some bizarre reason, many schools in Switzerland and parts of France are closed on Wednesdays. And of course the societal norm is for the mother to stay home on that day, rather than the father.

Maternity leave is 14 weeks long in Switzerland. My coworker told me that the government pays for 80% of the new mom’s salary during this time, to ease the burden of the employer. Most mothers I know are out for much longer after the birth of their child, usually for 6 or 8 months. A two-week paternal leave was just passed into law in 2021; before that there was no paternal leave at all! (Of course, in the US we don’t have any government-supported parental leave at all, period.)

4. An unspoken rule: lunch break is from 12 to 1pm, and it’s sacred.

I have never seen anyone at work eat lunch at their desk, ever. In the US, it was extremely common to grab a salad to go and wolf it down at your desk while keeping an eye on your computer screen for new emails and notifications. In many parts of Europe, this is seen as a bit of a faux pas: how much of a workaholic must you be, to not be able to pry yourself away from the computer for even an hour to enjoy a meal?

Generally, we try not to schedule any meetings that cut into the 12-1 lunch hour. We don’t call customer service during this hour because we assume they’re also out at lunch. We don’t schedule doctor’s appointments during this window. Lunch is seen as most people’s chance to rest and take a break from work, unless it’s a working lunch with clients or partners that are visiting from out of town.

5. English? Not quite. It’s called Euro English.

The vast majority of non-native English speakers at my organization speak and write in virtually flawless English, which I think is very impressive, considering how many mistakes I still make in French every day. However, I am among many people who have noticed that Europeans have created their own brand of English, which has become the common working language of the EU.

I would love to expand on this in a future blog post, but in the meantime, I’ll share briefly what I have noticed. In emails, I have adapted my writing style to be more “user-friendly” to Western Europeans as well as non-native English speakers, particularly francophones. Here are some examples:

Then: “Let’s meet on May 21st at 3:30pm.”

Now: “Let’s meet 21 May at 15h30.”

Then: “Yes, confirming this is done.”

Now: “I confirm I have completed this task.”

Then: “Hi Terry,”

Now: “Dear Thierry,”

Then: “We ask that you register today.”

Now: “It is obligatory to register today.”

Then: “Please share a note from your doctor.”

Now: “Kindly present an attestation from your doctor.”

I’ve also taken note of things that native French or German speakers have said to me in English that are quirky in a cute way. For example:

My coworker: “When I received the email, I flew over the attached report quickly.” (Meaning: I skimmed the report.)

Assistant at the ophthalmology clinic, putting drops in my eye: “Be careful! Zees will be a little bit burning.”

Server at a restaurant: “Madame, would you like to have normal water or water with gas?” (Meaning sparkling water.)

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