American Work-Life Balance: Why God Invented Stress Balls

“Just enjoy your life,” said my German Uber driver, Armen, as I exited the car. I returned a shit grin, a nod, and a wave, agreeing with what he had just said. I was on vacation… I was enjoying life.

Making small talk during the ride, a friend and I had asked Armen how he was enjoying life in America and what he missed most about his home country. He was quick to point out the obvious benefits of living in Germany, including no tuition fees (college is covered by the government), various freedoms (like drinking alcoholic beverages on the street), and Kindergeld, a monthly allowance of €164 to €195 ($184 to $220 USD) from the government to help pay for raising children.

The surprising thing was, it wasn’t these financial or freedom-bearing benefits that Armen missed most. He missed the lifestyle that the culture encompassed—the part where you were expected to enjoy life, not work its entirety. “In Germany, you work like 30 hours a week and enjoy your life,” Armen said.

The Research

Contrary to Germany’s habits, studies indicate that Americans are working longer weeks, taking less vacation time, and retiring later in life. But before you tear up, know that the one thing we can be thankful for is that our work habits are not as out of control as those of South Korea and Japan. They invented the term karoshi, which means death from overwork. Now that’s intense.

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Nonetheless, the U.S. still tops the charts with the “more work, less play” mindset.

Hours Worked Per Week

The average hours worked per week by Americans is 41, according to slate.com (2014)—that’s the highest average among the countries compared, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the U.K. While Armen underestimated the average hours per week Germans work (it’s 35), that does mean they typically enjoy five more hours of free time compared to Americans.

In fact, 134 countries have a law stating how many hours per week an employee can legally work. The United States? You must be kidding. It’s also alarming to hear that 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.

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The Washington Post reported that “the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American works about one month more a year than in 1976.” An entire month extra? Yikes. I can’t imagine the things I could do with that month. Those 39 years did some real damage… and it looks like it’s only escalating from here.

Time Off/Vacation

The U.S. (at an average of 13 days per year) is one of three countries that gets fewer than 20 days of paid leave per year.  Despite our low average of 13, there is no law saying employers have to give vacation at all. France and Finland offer an entire paid  month off per year. Cue the sad trombone.

But not only do Americans tend get less time off of work, a study from August 2014 reports they aren’t taking it when they have it. But why?…

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The top two reasons for foregoing vacation, according to a survey by U.S. Travel Association and GfK were that employees “would come back to a mountain of work” (40%) and there was “no one else at my company to do my job while I’m away” (35%). This idea is also known as the martyr complex: the belief that no one can do your job as well as you can. #ImABoss

Working Two Jobs

My mom always told me that time and money are of the essence. If you can manage them properly, you will be happy. “If you have time, you don’t have money. If you have money, you don’t have time,” she always said.

So, like 5% of Americans, I have two jobs. I put 40 hours in at my full-time gig and work another 20 hours on the nights and weekends waiting tables. Armen also found himself working immense hours just trying to pay rent. “It’s not right when half your paycheck goes to rent,” he said. “In Germany, you can have a two-bedroom apartment for like $600 per month.”

Buy Why?

Why do Americans kill themselves working insane hours each week? Call it part of our culture —the obsession to be the best, the most superior—but I believe it’s nothing less than what some call the work-and-spend philosophy. It’s the idea that the more things we have, the more we need. The more money we have, the more we spend. It’s a vicious cycle that never seems to end.

It’s cultures like Armen’s that inspire me. Imagine waking up and enjoying your morning with coffee on your patio, instead of frantically checking email in bed. Picture a short nap over lunch to re-energize your mind for the rest of the day. Dream of a dinner with a friend in which you had an entire conversation without the distraction of a cell phone and a few head nods. If we, as a society, focused on our needs rather than our wants, this type of lifestyle might be possible.

The Consequences

What’s more sad than realizing we don’t know what we are missing is the consequences that come with this hectic lifestyle. These are just a few:

  1. Drinking habits: http://mic.com/articles/108476/too-much-hard-work-is-turning-americans-into-alcoholics
  2. Stupidity: A study at the Yale Stress Center using MRI technology on the brain revealed that those that experienced stress and felt stress had smaller brain volumes than those who didn’t.
  3. Stress: I know what you’re thinking… I love working. I was raised that way… I have great work ethic. At least I’m not lazy. Working may bring us all the dollars, but it comes with the emotional tie of stress and anxiety, which the World Health Organization indicates that nearly 33% of people have. More terrifying is what a study by Harvard Business School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business revealed. Stress in the workplace accounts for 120,000 deaths… per year. Glad we are worried about work ethic.
  4. Disengagement: Gallup’s study (2012) suggested that 70 percent of employees are disengaged with their jobs. Yeah, that’s safe and effective. This alone costs the U.S. $450 to $550 billion in production cost. You mean all those hours worked over 40 aren’t even paying off?
The Quest for Change

As I stepped off the plane, almost automatically my shoulders tensed to my ears and that familiar gnawing pain in my temples returned. My body knew what the week would bear: two jobs where I spend 60 hours toiling away, and just one day off jam-packed full of an endless list of errands and groceries to buy.

For most of us, it takes an extraordinary experience to come to our senses. In fact, Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO of KPMG, had to get brain cancer before he realized life’s real priorities:

What if I hadn’t worked so hard? What if . . . I had actually used . . . my position to be a role model for balance? Had I done so intentionally, who’s to say that, besides having more time with my family, I wouldn’t also have been even more focused at work? More creative? More productive? It took inoperable late stage brain cancer to get me to examine things from this angle.

Many of us won’t have that type of life-changing experience to inspire us to change our lives for the better. But that’s not to say that we cannot work towards a balance on our own. It takes someone to create a movement… why shouldn’t it be you?
And… on that note, I think it’s time for happy hour. Right, boss?

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  1. Pingback : AreaVoices | Alexandra Floersch » Last Night I Won $1,230,946

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