Do Europeans Really Have Better Work-Life Balance?

The perception is people have it better in Europe when it comes to work-life balance. It’s a common belief I hear teaching, mostly attributed to amount of vacation time and government laws that dictate work weeks. By law, most of the counties in Europe have a built in social responsibility to support a lifestyle of working to live, giving Europeans a leg up on the rest of the world when it comes to achieving more balance in life.

For example the work week in France is 35 hours and in the UK it’s 37 hours. Average vacation time is about 4 weeks in addition to government and national holidays – resulting in about 5 weeks (or slightly more) of vacation days each year. From what I heard most people take all of their vacation time, if you don’t you lose it. It’s not like in the US in which you get to “roll it over” like cell phone minutes.

So yes, at first glance, the Europeans have an easier go of reaching a better state balance on vacation and work policy alone. However the issue goes a bit deeper.

The folks I met work just as hard as anyone in any country. Some people were quick to say they have even more pressure to perform at the same level in less hours than there global peers. Now each country has its own cultural nuances however, overall there were some commonalties I noticed teaching in the UK, Ireland, France and Germany this month.

  • People take a proper lunch break most days. They leave their workspaces and go to a café or canteen to eat and connect with each other. Not only that, they do this without laptops and cell phones and most times they do not talk about work.
  • Many people had 2 mobile phones, one for work and one for non-work and they didn’t carry their work devices around when not working.
  • Many admitted to exceeding the standard work week once in a while, however when they do most will stay at the office and not take work home with them.
  • In some of the buildings the lights actually turn off by 8PM making working late difficult.
  • Overall most I talked with do not work on weekends unless it’s absolutely necessary.
  • I noticed people smiling and laughing more in office environments.
  • They ask different questions in the workshops. For example we spend more time talking about the “why” of imbalance compared to most counties where they want to only focus on “what” to do about it.

I learned enough on this trip be dangerous with my observations. I would say the Europeans have some leading advantages on the issues, and I also saw many areas in which there are even greater challenges, which is a different post for later. Perhaps even requiring an extend stay to more properly research the topic.

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