The Myth of Work-Life Balance: What Does It Say When the U.S. is No. 29?

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According to the 2013 Better Life Index by OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) we’re still fighting the battle to find balance between work and our personal lives.

Out of the 36 countries ranked on the 2013 Better Life Index, the U.S. came in at No. 28 for work-life balance, behind almost all the countries in Europe as well as Brazil, New Zealand, and Canada. Australia fell just behind the U.S at No. 29.

The top three countries for work-life balance were Denmark at No. 1, the Netherlands at  No. 2, and Norway at No. 3.

Long work hours impacts America’s work-life balance

What’s the reason for the United States ranking so poorly when it came to work-life balance? Perhaps the most obvious factor is one we are probably very familiar with  – Americans work long hours!

According to the Index, 11.13 percent of employees work “very long hours” each week, or 50 plus hours on average. This percentage has held fairly steady since 2004, save a minute decrease (the study ranks the average annual increase since 2004 at -0.4 percent).

For comparison purposes, approximately 9.7 percent of people in all other countries reported working “very long hours,” and in Denmark, the percentage of employees working very long hours each week was only 1.97 percent.

There are other influencers to the United States’ ranking when it comes to work-life balance.

Gender roles still heavily influence the distribution of tasks within the family, with women spending an average of 4.3 hours a day on domestic work where men spend only 2.2 hours a day. Additionally, Americans devote less time to leisure and personal care than the OECD average; that’s likely due to the simple fact that the more people work, the less time they have to spend on other activities.

Sadly, the U.S is the only OECD country without a national paid parental leave policy.

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A better parental leave policy could make a difference

The study explains that though total public spending on child welfare and education in the U.S is above the OECD average, most of this money is spent later in a child’s life (on public compulsory education). This reflects that early investment in child care and support for families during and after pregnancy could have a greater focus.

Though increasing parental leave policies would raise employers’ costs, evidence shows that women who take the full leave they are offered are more likely to return to work than women who do not, an incentive for employers to increase leave policies. OECD also reports that female employment in the U.S. has been falling over the last decade despite the U.S having better career opportunities for women than most other OECD countries.

Overall, compared to most other countries on the 2013 Better Life Index, Americans work longer hours, spend less time on leisure and personal care, and take less vacation days.

How’s that working for your business? And more specifically, how’s that working for you?march-4-2014

This originally appeared on China Gorman’s blog at

China Gorman is a successful global business executive in the competitive Human Capital Management (HCM) sector. She is a sought-after consultant, speaker and writer bringing the CEO perspective to the challenges of building cultures of humanity for top performance and innovation, and strengthening the business impact of Human Resources.

Well known for her tenure as CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute, COO and interim CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and President of Lee Hecht Harrison, China works with HCM organizations all over the world to enhance their brands and their go-to-market strategies. Additionally, she serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Jobs for America’s Graduates as well as the Advisory Boards of Elevated Careers, the Workforce Institute at Kronos, and WorldBlu. Addtionally, she chairs the Globoforce WorkHuman Advisory Board and the Universum North America Board. China is the author of the popular blog Data Point Tuesday, and is published and frequently quoted in media properties like Fortune, TLNT, Huffington Post, Inc., Fast Company, U.S. News & World Report and many others.


3 Comments on “The Myth of Work-Life Balance: What Does It Say When the U.S. is No. 29?

  1. China — it is a well-known fact by HR with global responsibility that Europe has very pro-employee laws caused mainly by the many organizations that protect employees —- works councils, unions and union-type organizations for specific industries. The U.S. on the other hand has labor laws that are very pro-employer. And labor unions are on the way out. Google is the only company to my knowledge that now has a very generous parental leave policy.

    I doubt very much that businesses in the U.S. would ever agree to the kinds of benefits you mention. The focus is on controlling costs and making profit. I’m not against any of the benefits you mention — but don’t think we will see it in our lifetime

  2. If we had a robust economy, this wouldn’t be an issue. Employers would be scrambling to provide a better job that the rest of the employers. Employees would have many more options to pick the jobs that give them the best work/life balance. Politicians, are you listening?

  3. While all of this seems true, it is, in my humble opinion, more accurate to say that culturally we have deviated from placing importance on the value of balanced living. We have permitted ourselves to be swallowed by a viewpoint where the corporation supersedes the value of the individual. We do not promote, encourage or foster life and living it, but instead we shortsightedly value profit over balance.

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