The Work-Life Balance: What We Can Learn from Europe

September 16, 2016 | Talent Management

paris-843229_1280Americans are more overworked and stressed than ever before. While other industrialized countries have been going in the other direction—France has mandated a 35-hour workweek since 2000—the average American can expect longer days, less vacation time and later retirement. More than eight in ten American employees report being stressed about their jobs. Skyrocketing insurance rates, health care costs and long-term sickness absences mean that this stress costs companies roughly $300 billion each year. Can we learn from European countries that have successfully increased employee satisfaction and productivity?

In May of this year, Sweden invited some companies to participate in an experiment—the eight-hour work day was changed to a six-hour one, with no pay cut to the employees. The participating employees have reported increased energy, happiness and more efficient work.

In France, employers’ federations and unions have recently signed a labor deal that gives the ok for employees to ignore their bosses’ emails after they clock out—and companies must ensure that employees feel no pressure to do otherwise.

How can we achieve a better work-life balance—and a more motivated and energized workforce—here in the US? Here are some tips from some countries that have enacted employee-friendly labor laws.

1.) Vacation Time:

France and Finland each provide employees with up to 25 vacation days and 11 paid holidays every year.  Italy also provides employees with 11 paid holidays each year; Spain gives up to 14. Swedish employers offer 28 vacation days, as well as 9 paid holidays.

In comparison, the United States doesn’t require private employers to offer paid time off. Many companies do offer it–typically, a U.S. employee can except to accrue ten vacation days after a year of employment. Many also receive eight paid holidays off per year, but many employees–especially those in minimum-wage positions–don’t receive any paid time off at all. It’s quite different than the norm in most European countries.

2.) Workweek:

All countries that are part of the European Union have to follow a 48-hour weekly cap for worked hours. Many Danish employees who are also parents leave by 3:30 or 4 pm to pick up their children from school. France has had a 35-hour workweek for the past sixteen years. In the United States, the work week is 40 hours—standard in most countries—but our culture encourages managers and others working on salary to work as much as possible.

3.) Flexible work hours:

Many European offices, especially in Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands, use a system of flexible hours and working from home. Management encourages employees to create a schedule that fits their personal needs in regards to family and other obligations.

4.) Paternal Leave:

Denmark enforces paternal leave—both parents have the right to a collective 52 weeks of leave, with maternity subsistence. Mothers are able to take two weeks off before birth while fathers can have the two weeks after birth off. The other 48 weeks are to be divided as the parents see fit. The United States does not require that employers offer any paid paternal leave at all.

Obviously, it takes a whole lot to make systematic change. These policies didn’t happen in these countries overnight and it won’t happen overnight here either. But taking a good look at what other countries are doing right, and the positive effects these policies have had on their citizens can really give us something to work with.