Work-Life Balance: Europe Vs. Canada

Work-life balance is a priority in the modern workplace, right? Just ask Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, chairperson and CEO of Facebook, who recently announced his plan to take a two-month parental leave upon the birth of his first child.

North American work-life balance trends

Is Zuckerberg’s decision an indication that more large corporations are encouraging their employees to seek work-life balance? You might think so. Especially given that Health Canada’s 2009 report on work-life balance indicates that 25% of Canadians working in large organizations experience conflicts between work and family. Furthermore, the Canadian Mental Health Association claims that “58% of Canadians report ‘overload’ as a result of the pressures associated with work, home and family, friends, physical health, volunteer and community service.”

It seems, then, that while North American workers are aware of the importance of work-life balance, the execution lags behind the theory. Take, for instance, lawyers. For many, a law career is a dream job. But it comes with an average fifty hours work week. With such long hours being being typical, the Canadian Bar Association should be praised for instituting its ‘Work-Life Balance Resource Centre’ for lawyers. Nevertheless, depression rates among Canadian lawyers remain worryingly high.

Award-winning author, Brigid Schulte, sees such statistics as evidence that Canadian workers are willfully putting their careers ahead of their family and their health. How else do we explain a culture that outwardly values work-life balance, with industries that facilitate work-life balance that produces a labour force where 58% of Canadians say they lack work-life balance?

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Germany and France are consistently rated among Europe’s most productive countries. The term ‘productive’ here is not restricted to volume of output alone. Rather, it means that France and Germany are more efficient at production when their output is correlated with the total amount of hours worked in the nation. Less, it seems, is more when it comes to European productivity.

This impressive trend is not merely a matter of French and German citizens making better personal decisions—though that may be a key factor. That’s because work-life balance is, to a certain extent, mandated in these European countries. A 2014 French labour agreement between unions and employers ensured that around 250,000 French consultants voluntarily ensured they could not be overworked. And this agreement made international headlines because it described out-of-office handheld communications as work. That is, French union representatives equate checking business emails on a smartphone with working!

Now, consider that Harvard researchers have suggested that North American managers, who ought to work 45 hours a week at most, actually work 88 hours, if emailing on handheld devices is factored in. This is a staggering statistic that may explain why many North Americans experience poor work-life balance. As a culture, we know better. But mobile technology has mutated our boundaries between life and work.

Interestingly, the Germans have gone a step further than France. Nationwide, Germany mandated that managers cannot call or email employees outside business hours, except in emergencies. In a world where many employees seem unwilling to take the initiative on work-life balance, German law-makers took the initiative.

Following Europe’s lead

At the moment, there are no clear plans for Canada’s government to emulate its European counterparts. But there are numerous organizations and employers calling for Canadians to reconsider work-life balance. So, why not take the Canadian Mental Health Association’s work-life balance quiz and see if these issues affect your workplace?