When you draw up a list of countries with the best work-life balance, the United States is not on it. So, who is?
Here's what you need to know:
- Employees in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Latvia, Russian Federation, and Sweden offer some of the best work-life balance
- Healthcare benefits, paid vacation, and maternal leave are some of the ways countries provide work-life balance
- The U.S. checks in at No. 29, and data indicates 11.1% of American employees work very long hours
Work-life balance is a hot topic in the United States. However, a Zenefits assessment of countries around the world shows that things that promote work-life balance — like generous paid leave and family benefits packages — are more common in other countries. When you draw up a list of countries with the best work-life balance, the United States is not on it.
It’s clear that some productive countries naturally have a work-life balance integrated into their cultures, while others struggle to find a suitable balance.
Which country enjoys the best work-life balance?
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that an average rate of 11% of people work “very long hours” when looking at data from 40 countries across the globe.
According to OECD’s assessment, employees in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Latvia, Russian Federation, and Sweden offer some of the best work-life balance in employees’ daily living. On the other end of the spectrum, OECD’s data suggest Turkey has the worst balance between work and life. Countries in Asia, Central America, and South America also struggle when looking at OECD’s data.
According to OECD’s assessment, employees in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Latvia, Russian Federation, and Sweden offer some of the best work-life balance in employees’ daily living.
Let’s take a look at a few European countries with good work life balance, and how the United States fits into the overall assessment. (Spoiler alert: The U.S. has definite catching up to do.)
Establishing a better work-life balance isn’t always easy, but people in the Netherlands have a uniquely good balance integrated into their culture. According to OECD, the country ranks No. 3. Just 0.4% of people in Netherlands work very long hours. Full-time workers in this country enjoy a good balance between work and personal life. Families tend to share tasks, allowing adults to enjoy a suitable balance between work and home responsibilities.
Work-life balance in Spain could use a bit of help. While 4% of employees work very long hours, far less than OECD’s average rate, this country ranks No. 14 on OECD’s list. Gender equality is an issue. Spanish lawmakers are addressing the problem by providing support to enable women to successfully combine work and home lives. Those officials have their work cut out for them, however, in facilitating a good work life and striking better balance.
Denmark ranks No. 7 in OECD’s list with 2.3% of employees working very long hours. Danish law supports flexible working practices and provides extensive support for families with children. That includes childcare, paid maternity leave (18 weeks) and paternal leave (2 weeks), along with an additional 32 weeks of paid parental leave.
Italy checks in at No. 15 in OECD’s list with 4.1% of employees working very long hours. One of the government policies Italy has pursued is free childcare for parents of kids age 4 to 12. That supports parents as they work by providing them the peace of mind their children are safe and cared for by qualified childcare staff. Parents of children indicate this initiative is helpful. About 75% rate the experience as “excellent” and 21% rate the services as “good.”
France also has work to do. Almost 8% of its workers report “very long” work hours. The OECD lists France at No. 26. Problems exist with gender equality, as fathers are less involved with households. The French government is working to make improvements by diverting public spending toward reform for fathers to take more parental leave. This, by design, should help females enjoy work life as well as personal life, striking a more equitable balance.
The U.S. checks in at No. 29, far behind many European countries. OECD data indicates 11.1% of American employees work long hours (“very”).
The U.S. checks in at No. 29, far behind many European countries. OECD data indicates 11.1% of American employees work long hours (“very”). Workers find it challenging to achieve a healthy work-life balance, the OECD says. Since evidence suggests long working hours have a tendency to increase stress, this is clearly an area where U.S. lawmakers can improve public policy, such as implementing criteria that allow better-paid vacation time, maternity leave, and paid national holidays — at least for starters.
Canada, Denmark and Sweden offer the best healthcare coverage in the world. Workers with good access to healthcare don’t need to worry about getting sick or being penalized for it. Access to family benefits, including mental health benefits, allows them to not feel guilty about taking time off for health or overworking themselves. They know that routine doctor appointments help identify warning signs. Early treatment generally leads to better outcomes, including less time missed from work.
European workers get 20 to 30 paid vacation days annually per EU law. This enables people to spend more free time on personal health, leisure activities, and family commitments. On the other hand, U.S. workers are not entitled to paid vacation time. That is perceived as a perk left up to employers to decide. As a result, it’s difficult for workers to consider taking off time without paid leave to better balance their own life and alleviate issues that impair personal health.
In Finland, new mothers get 161 weeks off at 25% of wages, or the equivalent of 40 weeks at full salary, to the OCED says. Germany and Japan offer 58 weeks, Canada offers 52, and Ireland offers 26. These policies promote gender equality and allow families to bond and enjoy time together. In contrast, the U.S. requires employers to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave for some workers. As a result, people often choose to work long hours to supplement their incomes and don’t take leave.
The impact of work-life balance
Work-life balance doesn’t benefit just employees. With a healthy and happy workforce, other costs come down and productivity goes up. If U.S. employers look to their European counterparts with time devoted to making improvements, they might discover the secrets to increase employee satisfaction, reduce health issues, and retain happy workers.
Bottom line: encouraging supportive and suitable balance betters society overall.