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Tired. That sentiment is shared by one-too-many American workers. But how? A lot has changed since Henry Ford first created the 8-hour work day. According the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American is working 44 hour weeks, or 8.8 hours a day. A 2014 national Gallup poll put the average number at 47 hours per week, or 9.4 hours per day, with many saying they work 50 hours per week [1].

In more competitive and demanding industries like tech and finance, workers say they often work 60 hour weeks, and are constantly in touch via smartphones. A Bloomberg Businessweek story also highlighted that American factory workers that worked 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

But North America can’t be unique in this, right? Wrong. Many countries in Europe have very different views on a productive workweek and their employees and companies are thriving because of it.

Why Our Work-Life Balance Is All Wrong

When many young Americans first join the workforce, there is this culture of ‘paying your dues’, which usually involve grueling hours to prove yourself as an employee and to earn the respect of your colleagues. As you progress up the ladder, these hours seem to grow instead of shrink.

The OECD Better Life Index ranked America 29/38 in number of hours spent on leisure activities and personal care [2]. Many Americans are extending their work hours, bringing work home with them, or working weekends and this leaves very little time for anything else, resulting in more burnt out employees and a lower quality of life compared to other countries.

So what’s the difference between North America and Europe? How can we be spinning our wheels and running at full throttle and still be going as far as countries like Germany who are working less hours on average? It’s all in how you break down work and where it fits in your life, not the other way around.

The European Work-Life Model

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Germany and France are consistently ranked the top of European countries when it comes to worker productivity, but productivity here isn’t measured by output alone. 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. In short, less is more [3].

So are Europeans just making better life decisions than their North American counterparts? While it may be a key factor, the more impressive reason seems to be that work-life balance is more or less mandated in these countries. In 2014, a French labor agreement between unions and employers ensured that 250,000 French consultants voluntarily ensured that they could not be overworked.

This agreement made headlines because it described out-of-office handheld communications as work. The French union representatives equated checking business emails on your phone with work [3].

Germany has taken this one step further than France, mandating that employers cannot contact their employees outside of business hours unless it is an emergency. German lawmakers took the initiative to ensure the wellbeing of their workforce in a world where employees seem to be hesitant to take the initiative.

Compare this to North America: Harvard researchers have suggested that North American managers that should work 45 hour weeks, are actually working 88 when emailing on handheld devices is factored in. It seems that mobile technology has blurred that line between our work and personal lives [3].

While there is a better work-life balance, Germans are not immune. A Gallup poll from earlier this year showed that in a workforce of about 40 million, 4.1 million German workers have experienced work-related mental or emotional distress. Psychological illness is to blame for 14% of missed working days in Germany, which reflects a 50% increase over 12 years. Furthermore, statistics show that of the ten health issues most commonly leading German workers to compulsory time off, psychological issues—among them, burnout—have seen the steepest rise, vaulting from 12,1% in 2010 to 16,2% in 2016 [4].

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If we take a closer look at the German model we can see that for them, being productive is more than just a good work ethic, it requires taking time for yourself.

Sharpening The Saw

It’s important to remember that hours spent not working aren’t hours wasted. This time is important to reset as workers. The concept of sharpening the saw was first mentioned in Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. Covey posits that if you spend all day sawing but don’t take time to sharpen your saw, your work will suffer.

The saw in this scenario is us: the employees that are working away hour after hour. Without taking care of ourselves, our social, mental, and physical well-being, we will burnout and in the end not only will we suffer, but the work will as well.

German employees can count on four weeks of vacation a year, and also have some of the shortest work weeks known to Europe. In the manufacturing sector, it’s standard to devote only 35 hours to moil—which is a far cry from the 49-hour work week the average full-time employed American can expect [4].

What Can We Do

While in Europe government plays a big role in enforcing regulations when it comes to a work-life balance, it often isn’t as widespread in North America. We, as employees, are often left to dictate our own balance, and unfortunately we put more time into our work than into ourselves. So what are some changes that can be made?

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It isn’t realistic to simply work less hours, but we need to remember that work isn’t our entire life, just one aspect of it. Here are some tips on how you can have a better balance between work and the rest of your life [5].

Understand Balance

Balance doesn’t always mean equal; depending on the moment work or life may take a bigger chunk of your time, but that’s okay. If you stand up straight with your feet a little ways apart and lean more to your right, do you fall over? No, you don’t. Remember to recognize when the balance will tip the scales.

Schedule Important Personal Activities

Don’t let things like exercise, spending time with a partner or spouse, playing with your children fall away. These things are just as important as any meeting, so schedule them in your day so that you don’t miss out on these important moments in your life.

Set Boundaries

If your colleagues think that they can call or email you at any time, day or night, they will. In a professional manner, make sure that you tell them when they can contact you and reasons why. This will allow you to work more effectively on the clock, and let you relax off the clock.

Manage Your Energy Not Your Time

We all have natural energy cycles during the day, times when we’re really energized and productive, and low moments when we don’t want to do anything. Schedule your work according to your own cycle, doing low effort tasks when you are in a lull, and more busy tasks when you’re full of energy.

Join Social Groups

If you find it hard to socialize because of work, try joining a social-only group or a non-business related sports team. Focus on using these opportunities to make new friends and not talk shop.

It’s important to remember that a work-life balance doesn’t mean spending the same amount of hours on your work and your personal life, but making sure that both your work priorities and personal priorities are being met, no matter how long that takes.

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