Is it Time to Re-think America’s Position on Work-life Balance?

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female yoga instructor exercising outside in natureIn my usual browsing through Yahoo!’s homepage, I came across an article about shorter work weeks. In high school I remember proposing the idea of a shorter school week to my mother: I should only have to go to school Monday through Thursday. Because I had to go to school Friday it cut into my weekend time, truly giving me only two days off as opposed to the three schools led students to believe. And I deserved a full three days off.

My mother said no, of course.

But as an adult and now full-time worker, I still support this notion of “shorter weeks.” And, pertaining to the workweek, not so much because I just want three full days off (I mean who doesn’t?), but for a couple important reasons:

1) How we work is changing. With the addition of technology, especially mobile mediums, it’s much easier to accomplish tasks from anywhere and at anytime. If we’re honest, great deals of us go into an office and sit behind a computer for 8+ hours each day. As long as we can access the company’s systems outside the office, who needs to physically come into the office each and every single day? Can’t we behind a computer in any location?

2) The definition of work is evolving. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to see a man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, sitting in a coffee shop on his laptop—doing work. He’s a real employee or a business owner although his appearance and working conditions are not typical “business professional.”

A worker is not confined to a cubicle or a building, and being employed doesn’t always mean a structured 9-5 schedule or having one specific title. To work means many different things.

So I, quite naturally, found the article interesting about Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest man, saying at a business conference in Paraguay “that it’s time for a ‘radical overhaul’ in the way people work.” (Yahoo! quoted him from the The Financial Times. According to the article, “Slim said people should work three-days a week, to give employees more time to relax and have a better quality of life.” Yet, the catch is shorter workweeks would mean longer work days, i.e. 10-11 hour days, which could delay retirement (to 70-or-75).

Now the Yahoo! writer did note that although our nation’s working week timetables need an overhaul, interestingly, this push usually comes from billionaires who don’t actually have to work (haha!).

But is the writer correct in that America does need to update its workweek mandate, especially for the sake (and health) of its workers? After all, Americans typically struggle to find work-life balance and have often been deemed workaholics.

The five-day, 40-hour work week, according to the Yahoo! article, became the standard in the U.S. in 1938. That was 76 years ago, and as previously stated, the concept of work looks much different now from the 1930s.

CNN Money created an article detailing the 10 industrialized nations where workers have shorter hours than American’s average of 38 hours per week.

Countries with the shortest workweeks (average hours worked per week):

  • Netherlands: 29
  • Denmark: 33
  • Norway: 33
  • Ireland: 34
  • Germany: 35
  • Switzerland: 35
  • Belgium: 35
  • Sweden: 36
  • Australia: 36
  • Italy: 36

And look at some of the things the article had to say about each of the countries listed in comparison to our nation:

About Switzerland’s work-life balance:

…Swiss workers earn nearly the same as the average American worker, but work 155 hours less each year. About a third of them are on part-time schedules.

A whopping 79% of the country’s working-age population are employed, the highest of any industrialized nation. In comparison, only about 67% of Americans ages 15 to 65 have a job.

About Belgium’s work-life balance:

…the government created “career breaks.” Every Belgian worker is entitled to a one-year break during their working lifetime. During this time off, the worker receives an allowance from the government.

Belgian law also entitles workers to 15 weeks maternity leave, 10 days paternity leave, and in addition to that, up to three months parental leave, which can be taken in short increments up to a child’s 12th birthday.

Belgians work an average of 35 hours a week, and over an entire year, average about 210 fewer hours than American workers.

And results from the 2013 OCED Better Life Index also support the evidence above that the U.S. is lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to its policies affecting work-life balance.

An article on highlights a few examples:

  • Compared with 36 other nations, the United States is the only country that does not have a national paid leave policy for mothers and fathers after a baby is born.
  • The U.S. ranked 28 out of 36 on the index list of countries with the best work-life balance. Denmark was No. 1, and Canada, New Zealand, Brazil and most European countries all outrank the U.S.
  • The U.S. ranked 14 out of 36, on the index list of countries whose people have the highest “general satisfaction with life.”

We all know just how important work-life balance is, and with data showing that nations with shorter workweeks and a focus on quality of life ranking higher in the “satisfaction” areas, can we assume that America has it all wrong?

And this isn’t necessarily focused on shortening working weeks, but our country’s views on work-life balance and quality of life overall. We work long hours; skip vacation days or if we do take them we work while on vacation; and many times put our career demands over our personal lives.

And I believe this is largely due to what’s been instilled in us from day one: You have to work hard to succeed, but somehow we’ve turned working hard into constantly working. Our nation is so fast-paced; everyone has to be doing something—grinding, building a brand, networking, etc.—and the more demands you have on your plate the better.

And for this hustle and busyness we sacrifice family, relationships, and sometimes, even our health.

With the way the workforce is shifting, i.e. telecommuting, startups, etc.—is now truly the time for American workers and employers to adjust their thinking and practices when it comes to work-life balance in the U.S.?

By Shala Marks