I've just returned from a holiday in Italy, where they really do understand the concept of work-life balance. The average Italian gets 7.9 weeks off each year, including bank holidays and other statutory leave, compared with 6.6 weeks in the UK. And unlike this country, where 24-hour shopping is no longer a novelty and most of us grab a sandwich at our desks while we are working, in Italy shops still close for a couple of hours at lunchtime and pretty much all day on Sundays. Lunch times and family times are still sacrosanct.

There are downsides, particularly if you find yourself running short of petrol halfway up a mountain on the Sabbath, but they are more than outweighed by the benefits. And the Italians still outperform us in terms of employee productivity.

Spare a thought, though, for the Americans. The average employee in the US is entitled to just 3.9 weeks holiday a year, with one in four private sector employees receiving no paid holidays whatsoever, according to data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics. And a new survey from US research organisation The Conference Board suggests that holidays there are shrinking again. At the start of this summer, nearly two thirds of Americans said they had no plans to go on holiday. High petrol prices were partly responsible: a third of American families said they'd scaled back or cancelled holiday plans because of soaring fuel costs. But a rash of other surveys suggest that Americans seem to be falling out of love with the idea of holidays per se.

This is deeply ironic, because the concept of work-life balance originated in the US, and there's clearly a lot of demand for it. Corporate websites from Exxon to leading law firms advertise their commitment to work-life balance, while a survey by the Association for Executive Search Consultants found that a quarter of US senior managers would "definitely" turn down a promotion if it meant damaging their work-life balance. But in a classic case of "do as I say, not as I do", nearly two thirds of executives surveyed admitted that they'd actually increased their working hours over the past five years.

If this was all discretionary effort by employees who have so much fun at work that they can't bear to be away, no one would complain (except maybe their families). But the amazing shrinking US vacation smacks of something more akin to a neurosis - workaholism. Another recent survey found that three quarters of US employees were either "very" or "somewhat" happy with their work-life balance. I don't know about you, but to me "somewhat" falls short of a ringing endorsement.

Steve Crabb is editor of People Management