If you were born in the United States, your work habits probably raise more than a few eyebrows across the pond. Europeans have a different philosophy of work, and if you look at happiness surveys, you’d say they’re doing something right.
What can Americans learn from their cousins across the Atlantic? More importantly, what takeaways can U.S.-based industries borrow to improve productivity and employee retention? While many differences exist, the crucial contrast occurs in the realm of work-life balance.
1) They Don’t Eat at Their Desks
When was the last time you went out for lunch — not hitting the drive-thru, but sitting down to a meal? Many Americans eat their lunch at their work desks. Europeans treat food as more than mere fuel — it’s a celebration of life, a reward for work done well. They take the time to savor their food, which could be why they have smaller waistlines on average. Americans’ lack of mindfulness while eating could contribute to skyrocketing obesity rates. When you’re distracted, you lose track of how many calories you’re consuming.
The typical midday meal in France consists of three to four courses. They begin with a starter like a salad or soup — things Americans make an entire meal. They then have main and cheese courses, and sometimes finish with dessert. That sounds like an extravagant feast, but because they slow down to a leisurely pace, they recognize when their bodies feel full.
Given that obesity contributes to a host of diseases that lead to sick days, American industries should encourage their workers to take a more leisurely lunch. Instead of enforcing a strict 30-minute rule, they can stretch the break to at least an hour for employees who need it. This extension gives the workers who didn’t brown bag it time to get something healthy, and it frees up the frantic line at the break room microwave.
2) They Take a Different Approach to Automation
When Americans discuss automation, they frequently speak in terms of the jobs lost to innovations like automated checkout machines. As such, they express more skepticism toward the way technology could ease the workload on millions. By 2025, experts expect the division of labor to shift to 48% human and 52% machine or algorithm. However, Europeans embrace this change with far less trepidation.
Why? Part of the answer lies in declining birthrates. The trend toward aging in countries like Germany means that peak employment will occur within the next 50 years. Automation offers one way to perform the necessary labor when there are no longer enough people to man every machine.
3) They Take Family Leave
Having a baby in the U.S. proves challenging for many. Some companies now recognize paternal leave as being as critical as maternal. However, others offer little, if anything, to either parent. When you combine the lack of paid time off with the high cost of giving birth, it’s not surprising that many Americans choose to postpone parenthood.
Contrast this scenario with workers in the European Union. Per their rules, all employees, regardless of the type of contract, get paid leave as a right. Even part-time workers enjoy time off with their baby. When they return, they’re guaranteed the same or a similar job.
4) They Go on Vacation
The United States is the only developed nation that doesn’t mandate paid vacation time — and the strain shows. Even though science proves that taking strategic breaks increases productivity, many American workers don’t enjoy paid time off, even on holidays. As a result, many spend a significant portion of their time at work watching the clock, waiting to punch out and race home.
The European Union requires that each worker receive at least 20 working days of paid leave per year, but many countries do better than that. France mandates 30 working days, and the U.K. 28. Meanwhile, 23% of Americans get zero paid vacation time, and 22% don’t even enjoy holidays.
5) They Stay Home When They’re Sick
You hear it on the morning news all the time during cold and flu season — if you’re sick, you should stay home from work. However, if you’re an American, you’ve likely powered through at least one day when you’ve felt like death warmed over.
Even though some companies are beginning to shame employees into staying home when they’re contagious, many workers stumble through their days, anyway. Frighteningly, many of these folks work in the foodservice industry — would you like a side of rhinovirus with that?
Why do so many Americans go into work when they’re ill? Some of them are hourly workers who can’t cover their rent if they miss a shift. For many, their wages have barely budged in decades while the cost of living continues climbing. Others fear that missing work could lead to adverse employment action despite legal protections. Gig-economy workers, for example, often lack the protection of employees, and right-to-work legislation allows employers to terminate staff without cause.
The number of paid sick days varies across Europe, but all members of the European Union provide some paid days. Unlike in the U.S., benefits extend to all workers regardless of the type of contract they hold. Even part-time employees are entitled to time to heal when they fall ill.
Workers who report to work sick can do more than make their co-workers share their misery by spreading germs. You’re more prone to accidents on the job when you don’t feel well. Reporting to work while under the weather costs employers $150 billion to $250 billion each year. When you consider the high cost, it would be far cheaper for most offices to extend paid sick leave to staff members.
6) They Work Fewer Hours Overall
The average American works 44 hours each week, but many reports that they put in 50 or more. Plus, a growing number of U.S. workers tackle more than one job to make ends meet. When you factor in lengthy commutes and familial obligations, it’s no wonder that so many people complain about feeling tired all the time.
On average, Europeans work fewer hours, and many countries enact strict maximums on the number of hours worked weekly. For example, in Bern, the best European city to work in, people average only 41 hours per week. Requiring more than 45 to 50 hours, depending on the industry, is prohibited.
7) They Don’t Take Their Work Home
Technology connects the global community, but it creates undue pressure on many Americans to stay clocked in 24/7. Fully 39% of Americans report using their cellphones to send work-related emails when they’re not on the clock.
Some people sleep with their phones by their bedsides. They check their email first thing in the morning, and even when they awaken during the night. This practice robs them of a sound night’s slumber, as the blue light from such devices interferes with the production of melatonin, a critical sleep hormone. Even if they spend eight hours between the sheets, they don’t feel rested if they spent part of that time responding to clients.
Europeans, conversely, take the time to honor their need for rest. They also place a high value on family and traditions. For example, during the holiday season, many German cities host Christmas markets from the beginning of December through Christmas Eve. Parents take their children for strolls through the shops and sing carols in town squares. They’re recreating scenes worthy of something out of a Dickens tale — and they’re not emailing expense reports while they do so.
8) They Invest in Education
In the United States, many employers require a bachelor’s degree or higher from their new hires. However, only half of the American companies offer tuition reimbursement to their employees. The result is a scenario familiar to entry-level workers. You need the education to get your foot in the door — but for those who struggle, they need a break to obtain that degree.
Many European nations, conversely, offer free tuition to citizens and even international students. This focus on higher academics ensures them a highly educated talent pool. Plus, a comprehensive education empowers workers to apply their soft skills to a variety of fields, making them better prepared for an evolving world.
9) They Spend Their Tax Dollars Wisely
You might think that with all the leisure time Europeans enjoy, they must live in poverty and misery. After all, people teach you the mythology in the United States from a young age — hard work leads to prosperity, while sloth leads to the poorhouse. However, when you look at the GDP of many European nations, you’ll see they’re doing quite well economically as a whole.
How, then, do they afford benefits that many workers in the U.S. only dream of having? They’ve realized the power of the collective to make particular “perks” public goods. While it’s true that they pay a higher tax rate, small-business owners don’t have to foot the bill for health insurance for their staff. Government policies ensure everyone has the coverage they need. The relief of this burden makes it possible to raise wages and provide generous leave.
While it’s understandable that many American industry leaders resist any policy that expands the government’s power, it would benefit them to advocate for changes that would only pad their bottom lines. Moving to a single-payer system would encourage entrepreneurship and spur growth among many small businesses that now spend a veritable fortune on employee benefits packages.
American Offices Could Learn a Lot From Their European Kin
American companies can learn quite a bit from their cousins across the ocean. When you value workers as human beings, their productivity soars and their attitude toward work improves. Treating your staff more like the Europeans do will only benefit your bottom line.