Work Life Balance Around the Globe
In recent years, the concept that balance between work and the rest of our lives can significantly affect the health of society has been accepted by businesses and governments. In the events industry we spend much of our lives travelling to other parts of the world, often meeting people from different cultures with differing views from our own. In an industry such as ours, with long and sometimes unsociable hours, what lessons can we learn from how other countries approach the issue of work / life balance, and does it even matter?
We looked at data from The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which conducts a measurement of work life balance in its 35 member countries, called the Better Life Index. This enables us to understand the work life balance in our own countries, as well as compare it with other countries around the globe.
The OECD uses three primary measures to calculate the work-life balance of nations in an equal way: the percentage of hours worked per week, the number of working mums, and the amount of time that people spend on personal care (hygiene, eating, sleep) and leisure activities. Work life balance is primarily achieved through laws and regulations, employment availability, gender roles and a nation’s economic health.
Though OECD doesn’t assign an overall winner, in 2018, the Netherlands topped the Better Life Index in every area of work life balance. It’s an accolade which is usually secured by Denmark, which only narrowly lost out on remaining at the top.
In the Netherlands, less than 0.5% of the population work very long hours (over 50 hours per week) – it’s the lowest rate in the OECD – the average is 13%. Dutch culture puts less emphasis on working until you’re exhausted, and its working week laws prevent people working over 60 hours per week.
The rise in female employment levels in the Netherlands has been rapid for the past two decades. In the early 1980s the rate was just 35% – one of the OECD’s lowest, but by 2009 it had doubled to over 70%, though much of the increase is part-time employment; over 61% of employed women work part-time. Overall, employment rates, parental education rates, and fertility rates are higher in the Netherlands than OECD averages. They have very low rates of youth unemployment, high reading literacy levels, below average levels of child income poverty, and over 93% of 11-15-year olds report above average life satisfaction.
Takeaway: Leave work at work. Bringing work home with you further blurs the lines between your personal and professional lives. The same goes for answering work emails at home. Try to give yourself a cut-off point or consider limiting the number of notifications on your phone after a certain time at night. Apps like AppDetox, Offtime and Moment can help you manage and monitor your screen time.
Though it was beaten to the top spot this year, Denmark is a work life balance heavyweight and deserves a mention. An example of the Dane’s commitment to achieving social well-being, with its associated physical and mental health benefits, is the amount of time full-time workers in Denmark devote to personal care and leisure. It’s 66% of their day on average (15.9 hours), more than the average of all countries measured by OECD, which is 62.5% (15 hours).
Takeaway: There are many lessons we can learn from the Danes when it comes to work life balance, including shunning ‘presenteeism’, getting out in nature as much as possible (even in bad weather!), and embracing family time. We also really like their word ‘arbejdsglæde’, which means ‘happiness at work’. This word only exists in Nordic languages and is the expectation that you’ll be happy at work. This is considered essential to living the good life in Denmark, so Danes make this a priority.
The USA has a reputation around the world as a business powerhouse, with a mistrust of laws and regulations that may, at face value at least, may seem ‘anti-business’. The US, for example, is the only OECD country without a national paid parental leave policy. The unpaid parental leave available is just 12 weeks and only covers employees in companies with 50 or more workers. Perhaps because of this, female employment in the US has been falling for the last decade-albeit from high levels-despite US women having better career prospects than most other OECD countries. Not surprisingly some 11% of US employees work very long hours, which is high when compared to most European countries, but is in fact less than the OECD average of 13%.
Takeaway: Although Americans work long hours and have lower annual leave than most countries, many people make up for this by treating their weekends as ‘mini holidays’. This can mean packing up and heading off late on a Friday evening to spend the weekend engaged in some outdoor pursuit such as hiking, camping or climbing, and allows them to completely get away from it all and re-charge their batteries ready for the next high-pressure working week ahead.
The average number of people working long hours in Australia is higher than both the US and European OECD countries, with 13% of employees working very long hours, a figure which is in line with the OECD average. In Australia, full-time workers devote 14.4 hours per day, to personal care and leisure – less than the OECD average. However, it’s not all bad news. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Australia’s average score was 7.3 out of 10, higher than the OECD average of 6.5. The work life balance may leave room for improvements, but Australians feel happier than most.
Takeaway: The Australians are generally considered a sociable bunch, who place a high priority on spending time with friends and family where possible. Their beautiful sunny weather definitely helps, but nurturing social bonds has been found in many studies to have beneficial effects on health and wellbeing. Scheduling time in with family and friends during the week, even if you don’t think you have time, can provide a much-needed boost to your happiness, and provides a reason to leave your desk on time.
Japan is renowned for its intense work ethic, and as you might expect it scores relatively low on work-life balance measures. Unlike hard-working Australians, workers in Japan score their satisfaction with life under the OECD average at just 5.9. The OECD estimates that more than 13% of the workforce works very long hours and last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that in Japan working more than 99 hours of overtime per month wasn’t uncommon for salaried workers.
The situation isn’t any better for women or families. With the high cost of education, many educated Japanese women seek to establish regular employment before having children, yet, Japanese workplace practices make it difficult for parents to combine work and family life and the country’s public spending on childcare and preschool services is the fourth lowest among OECD countries. The situation drives many Japanese women returning to the labour force after caring for children, into low paid, non-regular employment.
Takeaway: It’s clear that Japan’s overwork culture is in dire need of change as their work / life balance is currently tipped firmly in favour of ‘work’. In 2017, 190 people died due to overwork, and there’s even a word for it there – ‘Karoshi’. Certain companies are now introducing their own tactics in an effort to get people to leave on time. From ‘embarrassment capes’ worn by workers if they are caught working late on a certain day each month, to drones which fly around workplaces with a song to remind people to go home.
Mexico knows it has some changes to make if it is to improve work life balance for its salaried workers and it is taking some steps to do so. For example, paternity leave was recently made available and childcare is being tackled. Maternity leave in Mexico is paid at 100% of last earnings, which is more than the majority of the USA. However, it is paid for just 12 weeks and covers only women in formal employment. The recently added paternity leave entitles Mexican fathers to five days employer-funded leave. Additionally, the efforts to increase childcare and pre-school enrolment rates (by implementing compulsory pre-school education) has translated into higher participation rates.
Changes are being made to Prospera, a government social assistance programme which offers cash transfers to low-income mothers, on the condition that children attend school, health clinic visits and other such things. Planned changes to the programme are designed to promote mothers’ participation in paid work.
Takeaway: Mexico has placed a high level of importance on tackling the issue of childcare as a means to get more people into work, and this is something that other countries could learn from. In the UK, all employees (not just parents and carers) have the right to ask their employer to consider flexible work arrangements, which may help re-balance life and work in some cases. See our article on flexible working hours here.
We’d love to hear what you or your company do to encourage a good work/life balance. Let us know on social media and be sure to use the hashtag #WorkHappy