These 10 Countries Have the Best Work/Life Balance

Updated 09/22/19
countries with best work life balance
On Abbot Kinney

We’re all on a never-ending quest to discover the work/life balance secret, and according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation Better Life Index, it seems Europeans have nailed it, with Scandinavia topping the list. Sweden famously scaled back its workweek to 30 hours while just 2% of Danish employees work very long hours (the OECD global average is 13%.) However, it’s a very different story for employees in the U.S., who work an average of 47 hours a week (which equates to six days a week), but we’re not alone. An EY survey found a third of global workers report it’s “gotten harder to manage their work-life balance in recent years.” The survey’s U.S. respondents crave work/life balance and flexibility so much that they would even change their jobs or careers and pass on a promotion to achieve it, but the big question is would they move to another country? If you would, then scroll down to read about the 10 countries with the best work/life balance, according to the OECD Better Life Index. And if you can’t move overseas, then consider changing your career to one of these 25 jobs with the best work/life balance before we all burn out.

Sitting pretty at the top of the list is Denmark. Not only does it have the best work/life balance, but it is also the world’s happiest country. According to the country’s official website, “Denmark prides itself on having a healthy work/life balance,” with flexible working conditions and a welfare model that includes childcare facilities and maternity leave. While a new breed of mom-friendly companies in the U.S. are lighting the way for better parental policies (Netflix and Honest Co., we’re looking at you), the majority of them don’t offer anything at all. In Denmark, all new moms and dads are granted a joint 52 weeks’ parental leave with pay, because it’s not just moms who have the right to time off with their newborn. Moms even get an extra two weeks prior to birth.

But Denmark isn’t number one just for its parental leave; it also ranks above average in education, jobs, earnings, income and wealth, and personal security. Over 73% of people aged 15 to 64 in Denmark have a paid job, and only 2% of them work “very long hours,” which is one of the lowest rates in the OECD. Overall the Danes themselves are more satisfied with their lives, scoring a 7.5 out of 10, one of the highest on record.

If you’ve ever enjoyed an afternoon siesta in Spain, then you’ll agree this gorgeous country has the work/life situation down to a fine art. Even the Spaniards who work full-time devote more time in their day to “leisure and personal care than any other country in the world.” In fact, they spend more than 16 hours a day on eating, spending time with friends, and dabbling in hobbies. Around 56% are employed, and only 6% work 50 hours or more a week on average. Despite this, Spaniards overall are less happy than most countries, rating their life satisfaction a 6.5 out of 10; the OECD average is 6.6. This could be due to their low scores in environmental quality, education, and income as well as the fact that Spain is the second-worst country for jobs, followed closely by Greece.

For most of us, work/life balance is almost an unattainable dream, but in the Netherlands, it’s easy. Why? According to The Economist, it’s all thanks to the nation’s “rather laid-back approach to work.” More than half of the working population (74% of people aged 15 to 64) work part-time, “a far greater share than in any other rich-world country,” and thanks to the Netherlands’ wealth, a “dual income was often not a necessity for a comfortable life.” But they don’t just work less (26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week); they also exercise more. A British Heart Foundation study found a large portion of the population get moderate exercise at least four days a week.

The Netherlands also guarantee 20 vacation days for workers. Despite that being less than in most countries, the Mother Nature Network reports employees are given extra money to take a vacation. Russell Shorto, an American living in Holland, described the moment he received this sum of money in a New York Times article titled “Going Dutch”: “In late May of last year an unexpected $4,265 arrived in my account: vakantiegeld. Vacation money. This money materializes in the bank accounts of virtually everyone in the country just before the summer holidays; you get from your employer an amount totaling 8% of your annual salary, which is meant to cover plane tickets, surfing lessons, tapas: vacations. And we aren’t talking about a mere ‘paid vacation’—this is on top of the salary you continue to receive during the weeks you’re off skydiving or snorkeling.” No wonder it consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world. Netherlands citizens gave themselves a life satisfaction rating of 7.3 out of 10 too. In fact, the entire Benelux Union (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) in central western Europe have nailed the work/life balance; there must be something in the water.

Belgians work to live, not the other way around, and this ranks them #3 for work/life balance. While 62% have a paid job and the overtime is low (just 5%), working remotely is on the rise, with employees wanting “more time with their families and less time lost in commuting.” Compared to North America, Belgians enjoy more vacation time each year. If you work an average of five days a week for a whole year, you’re entitled to 20 days of annual leave plus 10 public holidays. Parental leave is generous too, with women granted up to six weeks before delivery and the option to stay home for 15 weeks in total, while fathers can take 10 days off within the first month. Overall Belgians are fairly satisfied with their lives, giving a rating of 6.9 out of 10.

Norway is renowned for being an oil-wealthy nation. In fact, it was ranked the most prosperous country in the world in the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, and it remained in the #1 spot for six years. Job security is high too, once you’ve passed the three-month trial period; Life in Norway says it’s “uncommon for employees to be fired for under performing.” When it comes to equality, Norway once again comes out on top. According to the Human Development Index, Norway ranks #1 in the world for overall equality, with some of the lowest-paid CEOs in the world compared to its fellow employees. Thanks to their emphasis on efficiency, Norwegians rarely work beyond the normal business hours—only 3% work very long hours.

Family is extremely important too, with many employees given time off work to collect their children from school, and parents can both take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Overall they’re very satisfied with their lives, rating them at 7.4 out of 10.

Sweden is renowned worldwide for its obsession with work/life balance, and this became ever more apparent after it introduced the six-hour workday. Erika Hellstrom, art director at a new Swedish startup that adopted the shorter hours, now swaps her office for the hiking trail at 3:30 p.m. each day. “For me it’s absolutely fantastic,” she tells BBC. “I have more spare time to train or to be outdoors while it is still daylight, or to do work in my garden.” But across Sweden, long working hours are rare, with only 1% of employees who work more than 50 hours a week, one of the lowest rates in the OECD, where 13% is the average. By law they have to take 25 vacation days a year, and parents are granted 480 days of paid parental leave. Canadian-born Ameek Grewal, 29, who left London to work at Citibank’s Nordic headquarters in Stockholm, says there is a “mutual respect” among employees and clients. “I'll wait until office hours to call or email my customers and at the same time I know I won’t be phoned when I’m on holiday,” he tells BBC. So Sweden has it right, and we think the U.S. should follow.

Germans are renowned for their superior efficiency (the country is an industrial powerhouse, after all), but their diligent work ethic is strictly within office hours. Germans work fewer hours than most countries (an average of 35 hours a week), by law they have to take at least 20 paid days off a year (the third-highest in the world), yet their productivity is even higher. Why? According to Huffington Post, working hours are meant for working in German business culture: “When an employee is at work, they should not be doing anything other than their work.” This means they’re extremely focused and diligent at work, but when it’s clock-out time, they know how to play hard too: “Off hours are truly off hours,” and they “value a separation between private life and working life.” This also means they are more satisfied with their lives, rating them at 7 out of 10 on the OECD scale. So while the U.S. rates longer hours with higher productivity, the Germans prove that less really does equal more.

As the largest country in the world, Russia has over 140 million people, yet it still manages to keep the majority of them happy. A report last year found 78% of Russians are “the most content they’ve been in 25 years. How is this happiness gauged? By the “quality of their family lives” or to an “interest in work life.” Russians truly value the balance between family and work because out of the 69% of people employed, only 0.2% work very long hours, which is significantly lower than the OECD average of 9%.

Ireland is a hardworking country, but as work/life balance becomes increasingly important across the world, the Irish workforce is changing. It also abides by the European Working Time Directive, which stipulates that the average working week must not exceed 48 hours, including overtime. As of this year, Irish fathers will also be entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave and will be paid €230 (or $252) a week. Moms already have 26 weeks’ paid leave. The International Labour Organisation, a United Nations agency, told the Irish Times the new paternity leave will “help employees to achieve a healthy work-life balance” and also break down old “stereotypes and traditional attitudes in society and improved gender equality.” While the percentage of the working-age population is lower than the others, at 60%, Ireland is committed to providing education and training to long-term job seekers with its Momentum program, and only 4% of employees work very long hours. Irish people rate their life satisfaction highly, with a 7 out of 10.

Health, life satisfaction, and income ranked the highest among Luxembourg residents, and that’s because these all measure above the average in comparison to most countries. They promote “entrepreneurship and self-employment as an alternative to paid employment for young people,” and the gender gaps has also declined. They value their lives outside of work (only 3% of employees work very long hours), and there is only a 3% difference between the length of time men work compared to women. They love their time off too, devoting at least 15 hours to leisure and personal care, which brings their life satisfaction to 6.9 out of 10.

So, in conclusion, work less, work well, and live more.

Start getting your work/life balance back with our top books below.

Simple Pleasures 2016 Homegrown Goodness Calendar $15 $4
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Boundaries by Henry Cloud $13
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The Nordic Cookbook by Magnum Nilsson $59
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Transcendental Meditation by Jack Forem $13
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To read up on the other countries that made the work/life balance report, visit OECD Better Life Index.

How do you achieve work/life balance in your life? Would you move to another country to have it? Let us know below.

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