We are all on a quest to discover the secret to a healthy work-life balance. But according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), it seems Europeans have nailed it. For example, just 2% of Danish employees work very long hours, while the global excess hour average is 11% according to the OECD's yearly Better Life Index from 2020.
However, it’s a very different story for employees in the U.S. Employees work an average of 47 hours a week. Fighting burnout can be a challenge in the U.S., and it might be worthwhile to take a tip from overseas to see how exactly they're achieving a better balance.
Scroll down to find out the 10 countries with the best work-life balance according to the OECD Better Life Index.
According to a 2016 survey, more than three-quarters of the population - aged 15 to 64 have a paid job. 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—they also exercise more. A British Heart Foundation study found a large portion of the population regularly engages in moderate exercise. The Netherlands also guarantees 20 vacation days for workers. Despite that being less than in most countries, employees are given extra money to take a vacation.
Russell Shorto, an American living in Holland, is quoted in a New York Times article describing the moment he received this sum of money; “In late May of last year, an unexpected $4,265 arrived in my account [marked as] 'vakantiegeld,' which means vacation money. This money materializes in the bank accounts of virtually everyone in the country just before the summer holidays. You get an amount totaling 8% of your annual salary from your employer. The money is meant to cover plane tickets, surfing lessons, tapas, and other vacation needs. 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 the Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world. Its citizens gave themselves a life satisfaction rating of 7.4 out of 10. 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.
Italian culture encourages employees to take a more leisurely approach to work, as the work day often is comprised of a few hours of work followed by il riposo, or break for rest, to let employees head home and cook, enjoy a meal with family, and take time to themselves before returning to work. Italy has also soared up the work-life balance ranking for devotedly easing the lives of working parents. The workforce assists expectant mothers by allowing them two months of leave before giving birth and three months after. Having this balance between work life and personal life results in high satisfaction for many Italians.
The Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance also offers a free child care program in Rome, staffed with experienced child-care professionals who are available to watch kids any time of day, depending on the parents' work schedule. This significantly improves Italians' work-life balance, with 76% of those who use the program noting it's an excellent addition to their lives.
Not only does Denmark have great work-life balance, but prides itself on being the world’s happiest country. According to Denmark's official website, the country “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. is lighting the way for better parental policies, the majority of them don’t offer anything at all. In Denmark, all new parents are granted a joint 52 weeks’ parental leave with pay.
But Denmark isn’t praised solely for its parental leave. It also ranks above average in education, jobs, earnings, income and wealth, and personal security. Over 74% 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 7.6 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 almost 16 hours a day eating, spending time with friends, and dabbling in hobbies. Around 62% are employed, and only 6% of men and 2% of women work very long hours. Despite this, Spaniards overall are less happy than most countries, rating their life satisfaction a 6.3 out of 10. (The OECD life satisfaction average is 6.5.)
Currently ranking fifth is France, which is lauded for work-life balance thanks to the time employees are able to devote to personal care each day, coming in at 16.4 hours per day. This is categorized as the time the French devote to sleeping, eating properly and socializing, and as this is a cultural priority, it greatly improves employees' mental health and satisfaction with their work environments. France is so dedicated to this idea that in 2017, they enacted a "right to disconnect," law, in which companies with over 50 employees forbid them from sending emails beyond certain hours. No more lying awake and replying to unopened emails at 11:00 p.m. to pass the time.
Along with this, French companies often grant employees a generous two-hour lunch break, in which many can head home to spend time with family before returning, leading to overall satisfaction from workers. Fertility rates are above the OECD average as well as the employment rate of women 25 to 54, further closing France’s gender inequality gap.
In Lithuania, only 0.5% of employees work what the OECD categorizes as “long hours,” significantly lower than the average of 11% across countries worldwide. With all the additional leisure time, Lithuanians are reporting higher satisfaction with their work environments and have more time to spend on personal activities.
Lithuania is also taking strides to improve work-life balance for moms-to-be with 18 weeks of fully paid leave and an additional 156 weeks of partially paid leave for parents to share. This could be why Lithuanians are the sixth happiest nation in all of Europe.
Norway is renowned for being a prosperous nation, ranking second globally on the Legatum Institute's Prosperity Index in 2020. Job security is high too, as there are strict rules for firing employees in Norway.
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 of work to collect their children from school, and new parents are entitled up to 12 months' leave (with some reserved for mother, some for father or co-parent, and some that can go to either parent). Overall, they’re very satisfied with their lives, rating 7.6 out of 10.
Belgians work to live, not the other way around, and this ranks them in the top 10 for work-life balance. While 63% have a paid job, working remotely is on the rise. Employees want “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. Fathers can take 10 days off within the first four months. Overall, Belgians are fairly satisfied with their lives, giving a rating of 6.9 out of 10.
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 between 38 and 40 hours per week. Those who work a five-day week get 24 paid days off a year, yet their productivity is even higher.
According to the 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 separation 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.
Sweden is renowned worldwide for its obsession with work-life balance, and this became even 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.” 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 11% is the average.
By law, 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. Sweden has it right, and we think the U.S. should follow suit.
So, in conclusion, work less, work well, and live more.
Denmark. OECD Better Life Index.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: Better Life Index. How's Life? Updated 2020.
The "40-Hour" Workweek Is Actually Longer - by Seven Hours. Gallup. August 29, 2014.
The Netherlands. OECD Better Life Index.
Physical Activity Statistics 2015. British Heart Foundation. Updated January 28, 2015.
Italy. OECD Better Life Index.
Spain. OECD Better Life Index.
France. OECD Better Life Index.
OECD Better Life Index. Work-Life Balance, Lithuania. Updated 2020.
Living in Lithuania. Work in Lithuania.
Norway. OECD Better Life Index.
Jobs. OECD Better Life Index.
Living and Working Conditions. European Commission. Updated November 2020.
Belgium. OECD Better Life Index.
Germany. OECD Better Life Index.
Sweden. OECD Better Life Index.
Sweden - Parental Benefits and Benefits Related to Childbirth. European Commission.