Work-Life Balance: Can Americans Learn a Lesson from European Nations?

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Businessman keeping his balance on a rope over a big cityA woman works with analytics at a PR firm. She’s up and out the door at 6am and doesn’t return home until 9pm. On weekends, you’ll find her nose stuck in her laptop doing more work.

A man holds a senior-level communications position at a Fortune 500 company. He comes in at 5am and often doesn’t leave his office until well into the evening. Every other week he’s traveling out of the country on business.

Both of these people are married with children and have brought another addition to their “home life”workaholism.

Unfortunately, workaholism is a very common thing in our nation. I’ve met countless men and women like the ones above (who are real, by the way) who are workaholicsaddicted to work. And growing up in this society, I assumed it was the norm. Everyone around the world behaved like this, correct? Most people believed in working hard to pursue your goals or working harder than the next guy to become successful, right? Wrong.

I recently had lunch with a London associate and the topic of work-life differences in the U.S. and European countries came up. She said, after living in the U.S. for the past few years, she sees just how different Americans’ work styles are. We do not truly take breaks. In European nations, when workers go on holiday, they really go on holidayno answering work emails, doing work on their laptops, or making business calls. She even said no colleague or manager would even think of sending an employee a late-night text (post office hours) relating to work, yet it happens to her all the time in America.

This was interesting to me and prompted me to research the work culture differences between the U.S. and Europe. Here’s what I found:

The U.S. has some of the longest working hours in the developed world, yet American workers have some of the shortest paid vacation leave

The average British employee works 150 hours fewer than a U.S. worker

The US is the only developed country that has no legal, contractual or collective requirement to provide any minimum amount of annual leave

The UK (and other countries) adhere to a European working time directive, which requires at least four weeks of paid annual leave for every employee

A DIT research report found that 1 in 6 U.S. employees now work more than 60 hours a week

I also came across an interesting article in my research where the author breaks down four distinct workaholic “working styles”:

1. Bulimic workaholic:feels the job must be done perfectly or not at all. Bulimic workaholics often can’t get started on projects, and then scramble to complete it by deadline, often frantically working to the point of exhaustion—with sloppy results.

2. Relentless workaholic: takes on more work than can possibly be done. In an attempt to juggle too many balls, they often work too fast or are too busy for careful, thorough results.

3. Attention-deficit workaholic:  starts with fury, but fails to finish projects—often because the person loses interest for another project. They often savor the “brainstorming” aspects but get easily bored with the necessary details or follow-through.

4. Savoring workaholic: slow, methodical, and overly scrupulous. They often have trouble letting go of projects and don’t work well with others. These are often consummate perfectionists, frequently missing deadlines because “it’s not perfect.”

Although I certainly don’t classify myself as a workaholic, I have a few of the characteristics listed above and have had to pull myself away from my work on more than one occasion to actually live.

Why are Americans so consumed with work? The conversation with my associate was so intriguing because hearing how the way of life is in other countries led me to question “Do we have it all wrong here in America?”

Many Americans spend more time working than doing anything else. Yet, a good majority of Americans are also lonely, anti-social or do not have the proper skills to interact in a social setting. We’re so wrapped up in our electronic devices that we don’t know how to have or even value physical, face-to-face communication anymore. Kids are raising themselves as both parents work and sometimes still don’t experience “family time’ on the weekends because 1) parents are still working or 2) parents are too tired.

I wonder what would happen if we adopted some of the strategies of the work cultures in other countries? What would happen if we really left our work in the office? If we chose not to respond to business emails after a certain hour, or left our laptops and work cells at home when on vacation?

Could it be that we’d finally find a solution to that work-life balance that so many Americans are looking for? What do you think, readers?

By Shala Marks