5 Countries Where You Don't Have to Work Yourself to Death to Make Ends Meet

Personal Health

Earlier this summer we explored some things we could do as a nation to improve work-life balance, from the basic (paid sick leave, anyone?) to the truly innovative. This time, we're looking around the world: which countries fare better than ours in helping citizens survive without working themselves to death?

Of course, it’s hard not to respond to this question: “hmmm anywhere without child labor and a two-day weekend!” After all, not only do we rank among the worst in terms of paid leave for parents or family sickness and have zero mandatory vacation hours, Americans often don’t even take the vacation we’ve got!

Still, not ever other country with a decent economy is better than we are in every way. We have more women in the workforce than most, for instance. That’s why it’s instructive to compare ourselves to other nations and see who does what better, and what policies and attitudes we could emulate.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) makes a study of this sort of thing, ranking countries on quality of life -- the “Better Life Index” -- based on a number of factors, including work-life balance, safety, health, longevity, and more. So using that series of data as well as other information, the following are some countries that have better work-life balance--either overall, or in individual categories--than we do. And yes, though the Scandinavian countries basically kick everyone else’s ass in this category, we didn’t exclusively highlight them, since there are so many other countries that best us in this area we had the liberty to choose from among them.

1. Canada: Not perfect, but better than the US. 

It's not light years ahead of us, but it's still ahead. One thing that puts our neighbors to the north over the top in the head-to-head race, besides the requisite jokes about ice hockey and maple syrup? The men do a lot of the household work--although there’s still disparity between men and women:

Men in Canada spend 146 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, higher than the OECD average of 131 minutes but considerably less than Canadian women who spend 248 minutes per day on average on domestic work .

But the primary thing that puts Canada ahead of the US? Only about 4% of its workforce works “very long hours” compared to 11% here in the States. Canadians also benefit from a mandated paid vacation policy in every province, although it varies from place to place.

2. Denmark: Overall champ.

This pesky little Scandinavian country comes out on top of nearly all these sorts of rankings, doesn't it? But it comes down to the numbers: Less than 2% of its workforce work those extra-long hours, and it is closest to gender parity of any country. Each day, Danes are able to spend about two-thirds of their hours sleeping, eating, taking care of themselves and chilling out--not bad at all. In fact, it's also number one in global happiness by some measures.

One British couple moved to Denmark to start a family, and found themselves astounded by the improved life they were leading:

Since moving from Finsbury Park in London to Copenhagen three years ago with my husband Duncan, our quality of life has skyrocketed and our once staunch London loyalism has been replaced by an almost embarrassing enthusiasm for everything "Dansk."

The greatest change has been the shift in work-life balance. Whereas previously we might snatch dinner once Duncan escaped from work at around nine, he now leaves his desk at five. Work later than 5:30 and the office is a morgue. Work at the weekend and the Danes think you are mad. The idea is that families have time to play and eat together at the end of the day, every day. And it works. Duncan bathes and puts our 14-month-old daughter Liv to bed most nights. They are best buddies as opposed to strangers who try to reacquaint at the weekend.

3. Brazil: Vacation heaven.

Brazil may not outrank the US overall because so many of its workers work long hours, but get a load of their vacation policy. The outward view of Brazilians is that they like to have a good time whether it’s dancing or at the beach or just barbecuing with the fam, so it’s no wonder that according to this CNBC piece, they have a ”minimum of 30 days for vacation and 11 days for public holidays.” How lovely does that sound?

4. Sweden: World leader in paternity leave.

Sharing the burden is the name of the game in Sweden, where visitors describe an army of stroller-pushing dads. The Wall Street Journal reported last month:

Sweden's paternity-leave benefits, enjoyed by citizens and foreign residents alike, are the most generous in the world—and a debate is under way nationwide over whether to extend them even further. Sweden should require men to take a minimum of three months' leave, instead of the current two months, some politicians argue.

Fathers currently can take off work for as long as 240 days with a government-backed paycheck. Even if a father decides to take a more modest leave than allowed, he must take at least two months before the child is 8 years old to receive the government benefits.

Actually, in Sweden there’s a total of 13 months of leave that has to be split by two parents. Even the conservative party, which thinks the leave shouldn’t be mandated by gender is in favor of expanding parental leave.

5. France: Lavishing love on moms. France’s great parental policies belie the fact that gender equality is still not the norm here. But what they do have makes life a lot easier for new parents: subsidized daycare, easy-to-afford healthcare, and lengthy periods of paid and unpaid--but with job guaranteees--parental leave and home nurse visits. Back in 2008, NPR profiled American families who had babies in France:

There is a neighborhood health clinic, where she can show up with the baby anytime, with or without an appointment. She gets letters from a local health authority telling her what benefits are available and when she should come to a clinic with her daughter for her regular checkups.

When Ella got a stomach flu earlier this year, a doctor made a house call at 3 a.m. on a Sunday. It was paid for entirely by health insurance.

This is the kind of comprehensive coverage that gets France's health care rated the best in the world by the World Health Organization. It's also why France has some of the world's lowest infant mortality rates and some of the highest birth rates in Europe.

No other place is perfect, but as I learned through my research, each of these countries has something unique to offer its citizens. Here in America, this issue is on the radar in a way it hasn't been before, evidenced by the fact that companies continue to pioneer interesting vacation solutions to prevent burnout and their ideas are getting play in the national media (check out this place, which tailors its schedule to the seasons).

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