5 things all Americans can learn from Europe’s work-life balance

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Europeans seem to savor life just right:

Whether it’s slowly sipping fine wine after work like the French, taking siestas like the Spaniards, or leisurely enjoying a long lunch like the Greeks, Europe seems to own the most enviable lifestyles.

From where we stand in the workaholic culture of the U.S., it’s hard not to crave a slice of that mentality from across the pond. But perhaps all of that is a result of the long-rooted European habit of balancing work with life.

A decade ago, America was ranked the most overworked country in the world. Today, a third of the country’s employees still put in more 45 hours or more a week, and 9.7 million of us toil away for more than 60.


From prioritizing vacations to healthier habits at work, our European counterparts seem to have figured out the tricky tightrope of balancing career and lifestyle far better than we have.

So what gives? Here are five things we can learn from the masters of the work-life balance – and then put into practice in our own lives.

1. Disconnect from technology like the French

Work-life balance

Before you’ve even reached the office, you’ve already answered half a dozen emails and been on a conference call or two.

Am I right?

A lunch break? If you’re lucky, you have time to run down and grab a meal to eat at your desk.  And by the time you’re commuting home (glued to your work email), it’s likely dark outside. Let’s not even get into vacation days.

In 2017, the Ministry of Labor in France passed a law giving employees the “right to disconnect” and not look at work emails during off hours. Yes, an actual law. And some companies have even gone as far as turning off access to email overnight.

Here in the U.S., we don’t think twice about answering that 10 p.m. email from our boss. Middle-of-the-night responses are so commonplace that, at many companies, they go without any appreciation (or acknowledgement) of the overtime hours.

Read more: Four compelling arguments for a career break

The competitive nature of answering quickest after hours leads to a dog-eat-dog culture that keeps us checking our inboxes right before we go to bed and as soon as we wake up — on average 52 times a day!

But that mental space of not feeling like we’re on call all the time is essential. In fact, it actually leads to being happier and more productive, plus gives us the capability to do more meaningful work. Not to mention living a fuller life!

2. Maximize efficiency like the Germans

Work-life balance

Some may well associate Germans with being more efficient — but research does actually back this up. In a new study by the Trades Union Congress, the average German put in 40.2 hours of work and produced an index of 114.6 of productivity (for comparison, the average of entire EU was 91.4).

Part of this comes from the no-nonsense mentality in German offices. Small talk and social network browsing is simply not tolerated. That 100 percent focus without distractions ensures that work time is for work — and leaves more play time for enjoyment.

Also part of the German mentality: direct communication. No passive-aggressive, beat around the bush conversations. This streamlines meetings, so that less time is spent on talking about things, and more is spent actually getting them done.

Read more: Tired of the grind? How to recover from a mid-30s burnout

3. Be on time like the Swiss

Work-life balance

The meeting alert pops up on your computer, yet no-one is in sight. Five minutes later, you see one other coworker and ask, “Is this meeting still happening?” They have no idea either.

Ten minutes later, a meeting cancellation pops up.

In Switzerland, being late to any meeting –or anything at all – is poor form. The amount of time Americans waste on waiting for meetings to start, or being late themselves, all adds up to wasted time, as well as stress. And that’s not good for work-life balance.

And Switzerland isn’t the only country who considers tardiness a punishable deed. Norwegians and Germans share that culture of punctuality. Do this and you’ll find you get much more done, in turn leaving more time for the ‘life’ part.

4. Stick to your work hours like the Danes

Work-life balance

There’s an inherent guilt in showing up to the office 10 minutes late, but leaving an hour late seems to be routine in many American companies — and sometimes even expected. But take a cue from the Danes:

Denmark ranked number one in work-life balance, in a study by OECD Better Life Index.

Why? The average Dane spends 16 hours a day focused on leisure — that includes eating, sleeping, and other activities unrelated to anything in the office.

Add to that:

Only two percent of the population regularly work long hours. Often, times are designated for lunch, which means that everyone actually steps away from their desks to take a true lunch break. And also important to the Danes s emphasizing the value of personal time over work and monetary success.

Read more: The big myth about changing careers in your 40s

5. Use your vacation days like the Brits

Work-life balance

On average, Americans get only 10 days of paid vacation time after one year of employment at a company (which rises to 15 after a five-years tenure). On top of that, we’re the only developed country that doesn’t require paid vacation.

Every European Union country has at least four weeks of paid vacation — and yes, again, that’s the law!

In the United Kingdom, generally there are 20 required paid days off on top of eight holidays. France has 25 days off and 11 holidays, Spain has 22 days and 14 holidays, and Germany has 20 days and 10 holidays (but this can vary by state).

But the worst part is: Even though we have almost a fourth of the days off than the U.K., most Americans still don’t use all their days. A whopping 705 million vacation days go unused each year in the United States.

But it’s essential for our wellbeing:

Not only does taking time off help increase our emotional abilities, the very idea of having a vacation to look forward also has a positive impact on our moods.

So: disconnect, be efficient, on time and stick your hours before taking a vacation. Sound good? Let’s get started.

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