The Work-Life Balance of Other Cultures: What Americans Can Learn

In America, a standard interview question for potential employees has become, “How do you handle stress?” The question illustrates a common American mindset that one’s work-life will inevitably be stressful, arduous, long, demanding, and require sacrifice to one’s free time. With the acceptance of the paradigm of “balance impossible” comes stressful, demanding workplaces riddled with burnout. Just ask half of America’s healthcare workforce. Often, responsibility for stress and burnout lands solely on the employee. Americans ask individuals, “What can you do to better cultivate work-life balance?”

Americans respond to this question by throwing out self-care suggestions like yoga, meditation, turning work notifications off during non-work hours, waking up early to have “me” time, and working out. However, studies show that burnout in the workplace comes from the following six origins:

  1. Unsustainable workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

While things like scheduled date nights are helpful to well-being, they don’t set employees free from the conditions that cause burnout in the first place. Trying to cultivate work-life balance with downstream solutions like “treat yourself!” is like trying to cure chlamydia with topical itch creams—while totally logical based on the symptoms, strategies like these only provide temporary relief from the problem, not a permanent solution.

While one upstream solution is for employees to speak up, advocate for themselves, and influence their employers to meet their needs, there is equal responsibility on the shoulders of employers and regulatory bodies to create systems specifically designed to create well-being for their workforces and citizenry.

Unfortunately, even the way Americans address work-life balance limits the scope of solutions by framing life as only two halves: work and not-work. However, according to David Neff, the author of The Work-Life Balance Myth, there are seven “slices” to life: professional, family, personal, physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. In this model, work is merely one-seventh of what influences our sense of happiness and well-being.

In our current cultural epoch, Neff finds that many people are putting most of their life’s force into only two slices of life’s pie: work and family. Neff suggests that finding wellness isn’t about putting energy and effort equally into everything (balance), but learning how to nurture all seven slices at a rate that feels right for the individual (harmony). What if questions in interviews for potential employees transformed from “How do you handle stress?” to “How do you cultivate harmony across all aspects of your being, and how can we help you?”

And while no culture on earth has yet to create universal well-being for every single employee, many cultures across our earth are creating systems that encourage employees to cultivate rich and meaningful lives inside and outside the workplace. Americans who wish to transform work into a place that exists in harmony with life can learn a lot from five cultures who are staying small, honoring life over work, providing flexibility around time, taking care of new mothers, and shortening the workweek.

New Zealand: The Power of Small

Something that people living in the land of “bigger is better” can learn from the Kiwis is the power of small. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, 97 percent of all NZ enterprises in 2017 had fewer than 20 employees. New Zealand also boasts a 76 percent work-life balance satisfaction rate, and 91 percent of employees report “very good” relationships with managers.

The smallness of organizations opens up greater potential for individual and collective harmony because the power distance between employees and employers in New Zealand is minimal. The prevalence of small means that work environments in New Zealand tend toward being both informal and egalitarian. The lack of rigid hierarchy, lack of imposed formality, and lack of dense organizational layering bring NZ employees more autonomy, empowerment, and capacity to directly influence decision-makers. Add in the reality that Kiwis care little about status and are likely to use slang at work, and one formula for an authentic and whole human experience of employment begins to reveal itself.

In a world of small, proximity creates compassion and empathy. When employers work shoulder to shoulder with employees, they feel and hear about the impact when they create policies that deny life to their employees. It makes it much more difficult to create inhumane policies. Perhaps that is why, when surveyed, 90 percent of NZ workers reported that their employer would allow for time off for special family events, and 75 percent reported that their work hours are flexible.

The lessons that Americans can learn from New Zealand don’t end at the level of the employer either. The government of New Zealand is also quite influential in helping to make sure that there’s more to life for New Zealanders than work. The government of New Zealand has committed to measuring success based on the well-being of the people in the nation, instead of traditional economic measures of success. Perhaps this is why New Zealanders are entitled to 52 weeks of unpaid parental leave with job security, with the government footing the bill for 26 weeks of that leave—a clear sign that those in power agree that there’s more to life than work.

New Zealand-Inspired Questions for Americans:

  • Individual: How can I move to a smaller company?
  • Systemic: How can I influence more compassionate and humane policies in my current workplace?

Denmark: The Power of Rest and Recreation

When looking at some of the most brilliant thinkers and performers in history, there is a common thread regarding their lives: their working hours were short and focused, and their lives were full of rest and recreation. The American cultural attitude of proving one’s worth through tireless long hours and extended sleep deprivation and/or the American practice of making our citizens work themselves to exhaustion just to survive is something that could be healed. The Danish 37-hour workweek and the cultural attitude of prioritizing life over work show one potential pathway forward.

From a systems standpoint, Denmark has declared that the official workweek in the country is 37 hours. The country even enacted legislation in 2017 stating that employers who push employees to work more than 48 hours per week over a four-month period are operating outside the law.

Staying at work after hours in non-emergency situations is actively discouraged, and coming to work sick is considered poor manners. Danes also have a cultural tradition called “hygge (pronounced “HOO-ga”) which encourages citizens to step away from the daily grind, come together with their tribe or alone, relax, and enjoy the quiet pleasures of life. As a result of the mix of cultural priorities and systemic factors, only 2 percent of Danes regularly work long hours. Sixteen hours of every day for the average Dane is spent eating, sleeping, or in leisure.

In addition to systems that create the space for life, the Danish labor market is designed for flexibility and security, or as they call it “flexicurity.” The hallmarks of flexicurity are that employers can hire and fire at will, ensuring they have the best employees for their organizations, and the government has cooperative systems in place that hold the unemployed up while they look for work. Interventions range from unemployment payouts, education and retraining, or subsistence payments.

Labor unions are more prevalent and employers are also more cooperative in Denmark than in the United States. Both parties consistently work toward agreements that benefit society at large (rather than benefiting just the employees or employers).

Denmark-Inspired Questions for Americans:

  • Individual: How can I practice working only the hours where I am focused and productive?
  • Systemic: How can I introduce the concept of “hygge” into the culture of my workplace?

The Netherlands: The Power of Vacations, Egalitarianism, and Flexibility

The current top spot on earth for work-life balance according to the OECD Better Life Index is held by the Netherlands. With only .04 percent of Dutch employees work very long hours (50 or more) every week, the near-universal lack of overwork frees citizens of the Netherlands for leisure and for rest. In addition to the Denmark-like number of hours contributing to work-life balance, the New-Zealand-like egalitarian culture of the Netherlands also contributes to making work less burnout-prone.

Vacation is a big reason why the Netherlands can boast the top spot in work-life balance. The minimum amount of vacation for a full-time employee per year is 21 days (four calendar weeks) and can be up to 35 days (seven calendar weeks). The 21 days the Dutch are entitled to be a privilege that the average American may have to work up to 20 years to earn (or may not get as our laws do not require employers to offer paid time off). The cultural values around vacation make a difference as well. While the Dutch value their time away from work and use their PTO, 52 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their earned vacation days in 2017.

The Netherlands also fosters work-life balance amongst its employed population by offering flexible working hours and work locations. Each year, Dutch employees can apply to expand or reduce the number of hours they work; can apply to move some of their weekly hours to remote status; can apply for a compressed workweek; and can apply to choose how their daily schedules are structured. Part-time work is also very common in the Netherlands. The schedule flexibility that is the norm for the Netherlands allows the population to fit all the elements of a full life into their day in a way that works for their life’s unique rhythms.

Netherlands-Inspired Questions for Americans:

  • Individual: How can I prioritize taking all my vacation days, every single year?
  • Individual: How can I introduce schedule flexibility negotiations as a ritual to my current workplace?

Russian Federation: The Power of Shorter Hours and Paid Maternity Leave

True story: there are many ways in which Russia does not contribute to the happiness, health, and well-being of their citizenry. Surprisingly, work-life balance is a notable exception. The Russian Federation ranks 12th for work-life balance on the OECD Better Life Index (the U.S is 29th) and is the top performer when it comes to employees working very long hours. Only .01 percent of Russian employees work more than an average of 50 hours per week. By contrast, 11.1 percent of employees in the U.S. (ranked 29th in the world) work at this unsustainable rate.

Another way Russia is contributing to the work-life balance of its citizenry is the 20 full weeks of paid maternity leave offered to women in the 10 weeks before and 10 weeks after childbirth. This length of time is extended by two weeks in the case of multiples or complicated pregnancies. While fathers in Russia have no rights to paid paternity leave, employers are obligated to provide flexible working time to both parents for three years following the birth. In the United States, the only protections for parents are 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and this protection is only extended to those working for a company of 50 or more employees for a minimum of a year.

Russia also outpaces the U.S. in terms of work-life balance by offering 14 paid public holidays and 20 days of statutory annual paid leave. While many Russians choose to work through these days to earn benefits like overtime to make up for the dismal reality of low incomes, what is offered outpaces the United States by 34 days. The United States requires exactly zero days of paid vacation and zero paid holidays.

Russian-Inspired Questions for Americans:

  • Individual: Where can I work that offers humane maternity and paternity leave?
  • Systemic: How can I influence the policymakers at my current position to be as progressive as Russia in terms of vacation and holiday pay?

Spain: The Power of the Four-Day Workweek

In January 2020, a Spanish company named Software Delsol reduced the length of the workweek for its 181 employees—without reducing their salaries. The four-day workweek was not a new experiment, but it had been tried elsewhere in the world with mixed results. For Software DelSol, the measure was a boon to employee well-being and to their bottom line. The boost in well-being for employees led to better customer service, diminished absenteeism, and improved productivity. Customer satisfaction rose to 90.28 percent and the company found that their decision attracted more top talent than when they had a traditional five-day workweek.

Inspired by the results at Software DelSol, a leftist party in Spain called Más País decided to bring this effort to the level of government and to the stage of an entire nation. Spain is a country where workers put in more hours than other Europeans, but aren’t the most productive. Más País believes that the four-day workweek could turn this reality around.

To see if the success experienced by Software Delsol can be experienced on a national scale, the Spanish government is investing in a three-year, 50 million euro pilot program to test out the shorter workweek. Companies who enroll in the pilot will have financial backing up to 100 percent in the first year, 50 percent in the second year, and 33 percent in the final year. The dream is to make sure that the only thing lost for companies in the transition from five to four days weeks is that fifth day of work.

While Spain is already fifth in the world in terms of work-life balance, this experiment could potentially launch the country into even greater levels of balance for its citizens. With a predicted 200 companies participating, the world watches in anticipation to see if the success experienced by Software Delsol can be recreated at scale.

If Spain proves that a shorter workweek can create happier workers, higher productivity, more satisfied customers, and the same or better rates of profit, the world may finally have the proof it needs to decrease work in the name of increasing well-being for all.

Spain-Inspired Questions for Americans:

  • Individual: How can I speak to my employer about experimenting with a fourday workweek without loss of salary?
  • Systemic: How can I introduce the reality that taking care of employees leads to better outcomes for the company?
Becca Brewer, MEd
Becca Brewer, MEd

Becca Brewer is building a better future on a thriving earth by healing herself into wholeness, divesting from separation, and walking the path of the loving heart. Previously to her journey as an adventurer for a just, meaningful, and regenerative world, Becca was a formally trained sexuality educator with a master of education.

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