As the advisor for an innovative disruptive healthcare solutions company with over 15 years of executive-level experience, I have traveled frequently for business. One of the best things about traveling internationally for business, aside from getting to experience new places and make time for some of my hobbies, is the opportunity to develop a global business perspective. I’ve had plenty of time to observe how business models vary from country to country, and I find it fascinating how countries around the world value labor differently from one another.
The Unites States tends to score poorly in the work-life balance category. Americans are notorious for being workaholics- cue the image of the thirty-something office worker hunched over their desk late at night, working overtime to get ahead and rarely using their hard-earned vacation time or sick days.
Surprisingly, there are many countries who work much longer hours than the typical American worker. Hours worked are not the only thing to look at when evaluating work-life balance, however. It’s important to consider the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) as it relates to hours worked. America has the highest GDP in the world and ranks first among all countries for total individual wealth, according to Forbes. Despite its wealth, the United States ranks 29th among 36 developed nations for work-life balance. In a 2014 survey, 46% of Americans reported that their job demands interfered with their personal lives “sometimes or often.” On the other hand, GDP does not measure a country’s lifestyle. Americans work long hours not necessarily because they need to from an economic standpoint, but because they value productivity and choose to in order to get ahead.
I find it interesting how work-life balance is viewed differently all around the world. “It’s a choice,” Romina Boarini, a senior economist at OECD said about American work-life balance. So, when considering a country’s work-life balance, one should definitely take into account that country’s culture and core values. For example, the United States, Canada, and Australia all rank low on the work-life balance scale; however, when surveyed, they all ranked work-life balance high in order of importance. Australia, which ranks 30th in work-life balance of the 36 countries surveyed (right behind the United States) actually rates work-life balance first in order of importance for values. So, something does not align here. The countries that highly value work-life balance do not necessarily practice it.
Looking at the countries ranking highest in work-life balance, there is a noticeable trend: they are all European countries. Denmark ranks highest, followed by by the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Germany. On average, full-time Dutch workers devote 16 hours or 67 percent of their days to personal care and leisure (including eating and sleeping) as opposed to 14 hours or 60 percent devoted to leisure in the United States. One thing Denmark has that the U.S. does not is paid parental leave and universal childcare, so the country has systems in place to allow for flexible work hours. Just because workers of a particular country may want to devote more time to leisure does not mean that they can afford to do so.
According to Time, European countries have many labor laws and regulations that keep work time and leisure time separate. France just implemented a policy that allows employees to disconnect from their work emails when not in the office, and while it is not strictly enforced, “it’s designed to help workers limit the amount of time that work email infringes upon leisure time.”
Research from the OECD Better Life Index shows that, in general, life satisfaction positively correlates with number of hours worked. The countries with the best work-life balance also have the most satisfied workers. This is not always the case though. In Mexico, where the average number of hours worked per year is 2,226 (the highest on the list), 82% of workers are satisfied with their lives. Perhaps there’s more to life than hours worked, and some countries are just better at making it work and finding a balance than others. It’s unlikely that work-life balance is going to change anytime soon at a national level, so the best thing one can do is to take work-life balance into their own hands and make sure it’s a priority.