9 Ways Europeans Have Nailed the Work/Life Balance

Updated 05/17/19
European work/life balance

The health and wellness industry is experiencing a surge in growth, but the American work/life balance seems to be more strained than ever. Young Americans are working hard to “pay their dues” at entry-level positions, but it seems those hours often increase as you move up the ladder at work. In an attempt to prevent burnout and boost happiness, we think it’s time to start looking elsewhere for work/life inspiration.

Europeans understand the meaning of work/life balance differently than most Americans. For starters, they don’t talk about the balance nearly as much as we do. Rather, there is a collective understanding that certain elements of life are never to be sacrificed for more time at the office.

French author Pamela Druckerman summarizes the European ethos perfectly in her book Bebe Day by Day: “The French ideal is that no one part of your life—not being a wife, a worker or a mom—should eclipse the other parts.” We think that's a perfect mindset.

So when you’re preparing for your next job interview, you might want to consider asking the hiring manager about the company’s work/life policies. Is working from home some days an option? What is the maternity/paternity policy? Is the office closed for winter holidays?

Work/life balance is often as much about peer pressure as it is about policy. Sure, you could have a very generous vacation package, but if no one at the office has taken time off in the last two years, chances are you won’t either. Inquire about how many people actually took the vacation time they were allotted in the last year. It’s important to gauge how the people you might be working with side by side every day value their life outside of the office.

Scroll through our top reasons Europeans are the experts on work/life balance.

Required Time Off

Work/life balance tips

Vacation time exists for a reason, and most European countries enforce time off for the sanctity of a healthy work/life balance. France and Finland each provide employees with 40 paid holidays per year. In Sweden, the standard vacation period is five weeks of the year, not including Christmas holidays and Easter. This makes us seem a little silly for all of the guilt and anxiety we feel by taking the occasional mental health day.

Shorter Work Days

Work/life balance advice

In America, it is often considered a sign of diligence and commitment if you are the first to arrive and the last to leave the office. This is not the case in most of Europe. In Sweden, the workweek is capped at 48 hours. Managers may complete additional work from home, but staying at the office after 5 p.m. is largely unheard of. Most parents leave before 4 p.m. to pick up their children from school. “Don’t call me after 3:30 p.m. I’ll be picking up the kids” is an expression heard often in this incredibly balanced country.

An article from the Copenhagen Convention Bureau details the difference between Danish and American understanding in a hilariously accurate way. Danish companies believe that working 80-hour weeks is detrimental to both employees and the bottom line. When one diligent American worker started a new job as a manager at a Danish company, he maintained his usual work schedule from the States, putting in 60 to 70 hours a week. After a month, his manager called him into his office. The American obliged, thinking he was up for a promotion because of his diligence.

The Danish manager had a different take on the American’s work hours. “Why do you work so much? Is something wrong? Do you have a problem delegating? What can we do to fix this?”

Flexible Work Hours

European lifestyle

Many European offices, especially in Scandinavian countries, use a system of flexible hours and working from home. Management encourages employees to craft a schedule that fits their personal needs on a daily basis. By respecting that workers have a full life, or at least should, outside of the office, companies believe they are protecting their own bottom line as well as the health of their employees. Happy workers make efficient workers!

A Recognized Lunch Hour

European work culture
Food Faith Fitness

It’s a sad reality that more Americans eat lunch in front of their computer screens than away from their desks. Once you enter your office space, it’s highly unlikely you’ll step foot into the outside world before you leave for the day. Europeans, on the large part, are steadfast believers in the civility of the lunch hour. No one bats an eyelid when employees get up and leave their desks. And “getting lunch” doesn’t just mean stepping outside to sign for food delivery. It means taking a walk, getting a breath of fresh air, and maybe even thinking about something other than work for a few moments of the day.

Limited Office Hierarchy

countries with the best work/life balance
Chris Patey for MyDomaine

We’re noticing a slow shift from the segregated cubicles of corporations past to the open flow offices of startups and tech-savvy companies present. This unraveling of strict hierarchy, or at least dissolving the physical reminders of such hierarchy in the office, is quite European. In Sweden, for example, a strict hierarchical system is generally absent. Instead, companies recognize the strength of a team and the collaborative efforts of each team member. Swedish companies often reflect that mentality by keeping a communal office space.

Coffee Breaks

European office culture

You know those days when the kitchen coffee at your office just doesn’t cut it and you have to step outside for an iced latte? How nice are those moments away from your computer? Most of the time, when we take a little coffee break, we come back with new ideas and a refreshed work ethic. In Europe, coffee breaks are the norm. In Sweden the coffee break is known as the fika break and, according to Work in Sweden, “is an opportunity for employees and managers to meet on common ground and talk informally about their work and privates lives, often twice a day.”

Respected Family Time

American work/life balance

We love the book First Things First. Author Stephen R. Covey poses the question “What do you value most in life?” followed by “What do you spend most of your time doing?” The discrepancy between these two answers is usually alarming. Most Europeans, on the other hand, regard family time as equal or superior to work time. School pickup is a regular daily activity, not an “indulgence.” Time with your partner is often regarded as crucial to your life balance. And “me” time is an understood necessity.

Offline Holidays

European work culture vs. American
Egg Canvas

Try me again in four weeks. I am off on holiday.” This is a phrase you’ll hear quite often in Sweden and other European countries. It is also something you probably never hear in America. Even if we do take those precious days of vacation, leaving an “out of office” signature in our email is not always respected. When Europeans holiday, they holiday. That means no checking in with the office. No working remotely from an exotic location while your family or friends frolic on the beach without you.

Ah, doesn’t that sound lovely?

Paternity Leave as a Given

European work schedule

What we call maternity leave in the States is known as parental leave in Denmark. Parents have the right to a collective 52 weeks’ leave, with maternity subsistence. Mothers are permitted to take two weeks off prior to birth while fathers are entitled to the same time after the birth. The other 48 weeks are to be divided as the parents see fit. We love how Netflix and a few other U.S.-based companies are embracing better parental policies, but it looks like we still have a ways to go to catch up!

This was originally published on August 13, 2015, and has since been updated. 

Related Stories