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The Balance
What Work-Life Balance Looks Like Around the World
AdobeStock/Ekaterina Pokrovsky
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Work-life balance is an issue for people all over the world. Having a balance between career responsibilities and time spent with loved ones is a major compenent of a full, happy life — and some countries are more aware of that than others, it seems.

Here’s a look at how different countries rank in terms of work-life balance.

What is Work-Life Balance?

There are many different definitions of work-life balance. Most of them come to essentially the same conclusion, but they stress different aspects of the issue. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll define work-life balance this way: The ability to enjoy each of four aspects of a person’s life: work, family, friends and self. In other words, the demands of an employer shouldn’t overwhelm a person’s ability to enjoy a satisfying personal life.

How Can We Measure Work-Life Balance?

Actually, there’s an organization that has done this for us. It’s called the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This organization has 34 member countries that work together, along with 70 non-members, to promote economic growth. Part of its mission is to help its members design policies to make their citizen’s lives better and — you guessed it — more balanced.

The OCED gathers information from official sources like the United Nations Statistics and National Statistics Offices. Some information also comes from the Gallup World Poll, an organization that completes opinion polls in more than 140 countries.

To measure work-life balance, OCED ranks the percent of employees who are working long hours — defined as 50 hours a week or more — as well as the average number of hours a day of “leisure” time in that country, which includes time for leisure activities, sleeping and eating.

Legislation Affects Work-Life Balance

Some countries are more aggressive than others in terms of passing legislation that promotes work-life balance.  For example:

• France has passed a law that allows employees to disregard work email when they’re not in the office.

• France has 25 federally mandated vacation days.

• The European Union has passed a Working Time Directive that enforces a maximum 48-hour workweek, including overtime.

As you can see, European countries are much more aggressive than the United States on this front. One result of this is the fact that in Germany and France, employees take almost all of their time off. In the United States, however, employees use only 73 percent of their available time off.

Countries with the Best Work-Life Balance

According to the OCED, work-life balance is best in these 10 countries, in the following order:

1. Netherlands

The country ranked as the best for work-life balance, only 0.5 percent of employees work long hours, compared with the overall average of 13 percent, as reported by the OCED. The country also has a high childhood satisfaction rate of 93 percent.

2. Denmark

A survey from InterNations found that Danes have the shortest work week (an average of 39.7 hours) of countries surveyed. Furthermore, the state provides childcare for children up to the age of six, and parents are entitled to 52 weeks of paid maternity leave.

3. France

The French enjoy five weeks minimum of paid vacation time. The law establishes the workweek as 35 hours, although overtime does happen. 

4. Spain

Traditionally, employees enjoyed a siesta around lunchtime, breaking up the workday. However, there have been moves to make the workday more aligned to that of the rest of the EU in recent years. Still, the government is looking for ways to improve work-life balance with measures such as increasing the number of nursery schools. 

5. Belgium

Belgian law stipulates a maximum 8-hour workday and 40-hour work week. The country has also seen a rise in telecommuting and flexible work options. 

6. Norway

According to the Human Development Index, Norway ranks number one for overall equality. The country also prioritizes education, asking students to choose their career direction early on. Additionally, Norwegians tend to have high job security. 

7. Sweden

Employees enjoy six weeks of vacation time plus holidays and sick days. They also enjoy flexible work hours and a health and energy allowance. Parents are entitled to 480 days of leave.

8. Germany

Germany has perhaps the most generous parental leave policy in the world — up to three years per child. Germans also tend to work overall shorter hours but produce more in that time.

9. Russian Federation

According to the OECD,  very few citizens of the Russian Federation work long hours at a rate of 0.2 percent. Seventy percent of people between the ages of 15 and 64 are employed. 

10. Ireland

The OECD found that the Irish dedicate an average of 15.3 hours per day engaging in non-work, personal activities. These including relaxation, sleeping, eating, and others. 

Countries with the Worst Work-Life Balance

They also determined which countries have the worst work-life balance, which are as follows:

1. Turkey

Thirty-four percent of employees work very long hours, according to the OECD. 

Turkey is by far the country with the highest proportion of people working very long hours, with 34%. Furthermore, while Turkey does offer paid maternity leave, it only does so for 16 weeks total for one child or 18 weeks for multiple pregnancies.

2. Mexico

Sixty-one percent of people between the ages of 15 and 64 have a paid job, lower than the overall average. Nearly 30 percent work very long hours. 

3. Israel

In Israel, 15 percent of employees work very long hours. The average household disposable income per capita is also lower than the overall average.

4. Korea

While Korea recently cut its maximum working hours per week from 68 to 52, this is still substantially higher than many other countries. Still, the change may help Koreans see a better work-life balance.

5. Japan

Japan has also made strides to improve work-life balance by limiting overtime to 100 hours per month and 720 hours per year. A 2017 survey conducted by Hays found that one in four Japanese workers was dissatisfied with their work-life balance. 

6. Iceland

Iceland is an expensive country, and many employees work long hours to make ends meet. However, Icelanders are not supposed to work more than 48 per week.

7. South Africa

According to a Targus NoMoreExcuses Survey, 30 percent of South African respondents feel their employers don't value work-life balance. The survey also found that 63 percent of employers don't permit remote working.

8. Australia

Census data from 2016 found that 43 percent of Australians work more than 43 hours per week. An Austrian Bureau of Statistics survey from 2017 found that 35% of Australian men and 42 percent of Australian women felt significant stress or lack of time.

9. United States

The U.S. is the only OECD without a paid parental leave policy. It also has no federally-mandated sick leave policy or maximum number of hours employees may work per week. 

10. New Zealand

A 2016 Census survey found that most New Zealanders worked between 40 and 49 hours per week. The OECD also reported that 13 percent work very long hours.

The Bottom Line: Work-Life Balance

It's interesting to note that, according to the OCED's findings, 11.7 percent of employees in the U.S. work long hours and people enjoy an average of 14.5 leisure hours in a day. (We're sure this number would change pretty dramatically, though, if the OCED honed in exclusively on working moms, and also controlled for where in the U.S. respondents lived.)

Keep in mind that work-life balance is only one of the 11 factors the OCED ranks on a per country basis. However, it is clear that many countries could do much better to ensure that their citizens are living full, enriched lives.

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