Work Life Balance Outside the US

This week we talk about juggling your career, family, friends, and relationships — and how to make it work (or not). Does “balance” actually exist? #whatbalance


When we discuss strides toward work-life balance in the United States, we’re often talking about a small percentage of private companies. But in other developed countries, squaring professional responsibilities with the demands of home involves systemic changes with cultural impact — not just doomed individual efforts.

Here are six countries that have addressed work-life balance with both federal changes and/or major workplace culture adjustments. Note: These are wealthy, industrialized nations that have the resources to provide legislative support. As a member of that club, the U.S. is a clear outlier.

work-life balance in other countries
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For about 1 million French workers in the tech industry, the enviable 35-hour workweek still stands, even though they work in an industry that demands being tethered to the Internet. A deal between unions and tech industry workers says that employees cannot be pressured by bosses to check email after completing a workday. Bosses can still send emails, and you can — if you’re so inclined — respond. But management isn’t allowed to force you to be on call after you check out for the day.

In Germany, companies with more than 15 employees are required to accommodate part-time work requests (with an accompanying pay cut) from people who have been employed by the organization for at least six months. According to research from Boston College, this request is most often used by women for “family reasons.”

In addition to subsidized child care, Germany also recognizes elder-care leave (much like parental leave), which allows people to cut their hours in half for up to two years and receive 75 percent of their salary to care for their elderly. Long-term insurance, also funded by the government, provides €205 to €665 per month (about $224 to $729) to Germans needing care. People can also use this funding to finance care, such as nursing homes or individual providers, for their older family members.

In addition to paid parental leave, Sweden has a professional culture reflective of parents’ (read: not just mothers’) needs. Sweden’s federal website observes that at a typical Swedish office, workers tend to leave “a bit before four in the afternoon” to pick up children from day care. Other commonly used office practices are flextime, telecommuting, and relaxed dress codes.

According to the 2015 OECD Better Life Index, Canada implemented full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-old children in 2015, after beginning the program in the province of Ontario in 2010. Although the school day operates from 9 am to 3 pm, each school provides care before and after the bell rings. Since children are tended to by a teacher and an early childhood educator, they have “an integrated learning [program]” all day. And with the kids taken care of, scheduling is a little easier on parents.

While the U.S. relies on Silicon Valley startups to lead the way, Belgium starts at the top when it comes to cultural changes in the workplace: the federal government. The government organization known as FPS Social Security has become a completely results-oriented work culture. As a result, it’s introduced working from home and desk sharing, and employees have more flexible ways to work where and when they like. And the results are indeed good: There’s been a 30 percent reduction in office space (saving the federal government €6 million a year), a 55 percent reduction in paper (for printing), and a 60 percent reduction in office furniture expenses.

In Denmark, the standard workweek is only 37 hours, described by OECD researchers as “relatively short” compared to the rest of the world. But the combination of paid parental leave (among other federalized family-friendly practices), a minimum of five weeks’ vacation for all wage earners, and a flexible workday allow Danes to keep their work and family lives compatible. Employment rates for women between the ages of 25 and 54 are among the highest of all nations surveyed by the OECD. 

More on Balancing Acts:
Why Balance Is a Lie
How to Stop Working Full-Time
Achieving Balance When You Never Leave the (Home) Office