Work-life balance in Europe: What’s a good life like?

How do we want to live?

24 h per day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year — the pre­con­di­ti­ons for a good work-life balance are up to this point equal for all of us. But how do we spend this time? 

We dif­fer a lot in what we do during our days and weeks, and in our lives. This is due to our indi­vi­dual pre­fe­ren­ces, as well as to our cul­ture.  Our rhythm depends on many fac­tors: per­so­nal decisi­ons, tra­di­ti­ons, sea­sons, our family situa­tion or where we live. Some­ti­mes there are fixed time spans in which life stands still, like the Spa­nish Siesta bet­ween 14 h and 17 h (which by the way many Spa­nish dis­like) . In other regi­ons cer­tain days are holy: In the Colo­gne area for example it is unt­hin­ka­ble to work during Car­ni­val. 

The most divi­sive struc­ture for our day, howe­ver, seems to be that of working time and pri­va­tely owned time. Worth to take a look. How do we live our lives in Europe? 

The framework: Different starting points for work-life balance

Two fac­tors affect all of us in our every-day life, no mat­ter where we are and what we do: glo­ba­li­sa­tion and digi­ta­li­sa­tion. Those deve­lo­p­ments mean that ever­ything beco­mes fas­ter, more com­plex and inter­con­nec­ted. For some people it means more fle­xi­bi­lity and free­dom, just think of the blog­ger. For others it means that working life and pri­vate life blend — like for the invest­ment ban­ker. Free time? You can work at any time, any place.

In some pla­ces like Frank­furt, Lon­don, Luxem­burg the type of the invest­ment ban­ker will be highly repre­sen­ted. But also other working areas are time-intense. Europe is a con­ti­nent of agri­cul­ture. And there is as well work which can­not wait, no mat­ter what time of the day — in Anda­lu­sia, Aus­tria, Bre­ta­gne, Poland or Sicily. Other cities again are well-renow­ned for their rela­xed way to live, like Vienna or Lis­bon. Where you are has a high effect on how you live.

What exactly is work-life balance?

The Inter­na­tio­nal Labour Orga­niz­a­tion (ILO) has iden­ti­fied five dimen­si­ons for a good work-life balance: It is about crea­ting rou­ti­nes that are good for (1) health and safety, (2) which are family-friendly, that (3) create equa­lity bet­ween gen­ders, (4) pro­mote pro­duc­ti­vity and com­pe­ti­ti­ve­ness of com­pa­nies and (5) give the employee pos­si­bi­li­ties to decide about working time. Those dif­fe­rent aspects show how com­plex the topic is — and that there is much more in it than just dis­cus­sions about femi­nism or leisure time.

Changing societies

Espe­cially amongst young people it has become ever more important to decide yourself about your day and to spend time with things you really like. In an ideal case work is already part of what you love. But not ever­yone lives in a per­fect world. Unem­ploy­ment, also among young people, is a heavy pro­blem.

Also how we deal with our work depends on our cul­ture. Five examp­les show, how dif­fe­rent we live the same thing.


When I hear the words of “fle­xi­bi­lity” and “work”, I often think of Den­mark, Swe­den or Fin­land. Howe­ver, part time work is pretty uncom­mon. On the con­trary: Working days can be quite long — but not in the office! Child care? Paren­tal leave? No pro­blem. Just work-life balance. And much gen­der equa­lity at the same time.

Take for example Fin­land: 78% of the men and 73% of women are employed accord­ing to OECD sta­tis­tics. Also it seems to be com­monly ack­now­led­ged that there are things out­side the office which are at least equally important as work. Work still takes place also out­side the office in the evenings. In Hel­sinki also Minis­ters collect their child­ren from the child­care at 5 o’ clock. An inte­res­ting take on life and work in Fin­land can be found here:

This struc­ture is, by the way, true across all jobs: To work long hours rather stands for inef­fi­ci­ency. And ano­t­her important part: Work-life balance is not only there for fami­lies. Ever­yone has the right to a life, to meet friends, to do sports.

Skandinavien Kopie



My pic­ture of France has a lot to do with good food, sun and “savoir vivre”. Howe­ver, these are two things — to know how to live well, and to actually do it. So how does one live in France?

Last sum­mer I read an arti­cle: “Work eMails are ille­gal in France after the end of office times.” Par­don me? How can this work with black­ber­ries being part of the fur­ni­ture and the some­ti­mes last resort to escape the office? A revo­lu­tion?

In France people work 35 hours per week. This is less than the average Euro­pean who works 37,2 hours per week — the lon­gest the Greeks with an average of 42 hours. In rea­lity French people work more. But now they have the „right to dis­con­nect”.  On the other hand: Employ­ers can deviate from the 35 h — week — this has led to many pro­tests in France, where people watch out for their labour rights.

In addi­tion: Child care is self-evi­dent. It is nor­mal that fami­lies return to work after a few mon­ths. Hence the take on work and family is more rela­xed. This is thus true for Scan­di­na­via and France.


In Poland 68% of the men and 55% of the women are employed. 14,4 hours per day remain to sleep, to eat and to have a pri­vate life. 7% of the people have to work overly long; the OECD average is 13%. The unem­ploy­ment rate is at 8,5%, and that among young people at 14,5% — a dif­fi­cult situa­tion for young people. This means: It is not easy to ask for rights, as many others are also eager to get a job — even if it is a wrong believe that long working hours mean more pro­duc­ti­vity.

Family comes first in Poland, and many women have their key role here. Hence com­pa­red to Scan­di­na­via  and France tra­di­tio­nal role models play a huge part here.

poland-114257_1280 Kopie



The Ita­lian way of life is what many people strive for. Sun, sea­side, good food — the con­di­ti­ons are set for a good life. But great cities and eco­no­mic rea­li­ties don’t always go tog­e­ther. Also regio­nal dif­fe­ren­ces exist: The agri­cul­tu­ral South has hard times com­pa­red to the indus­trial North. In the South (youth) unem­ploy­ment is high, and eco­no­mic growth low.

There is still pro­bably some­thing to the image of the rela­xed Ita­lian. But the Ita­lian people I know are pretty hard-working, suf­fer from much traf­fic and do not earn much money. Not to for­get: Italy was hit hard by the eco­no­mic cri­sis; life is expen­sive at the same time. Only 57% of the people have a job, this is 16% below the OECD average.

Family life is important, and roles are tra­di­tio­nally defi­ned. In times of eco­no­mic uncer­tainty work-life balance in Italy also means: You have to be able to afford it — more important to have a job.


Work-life balance is an important topic in Ger­many, and espe­cially young people care a lot. Unfor­tu­n­a­tely the ques­tion is still often — at least in one’s mind — that bet­ween “career or life”. Also how to recon­cile family and job remains an issue. But Ger­many has an envi­ron­ment con­du­cive for work-life balance like only few other coun­tries: Quite high income, an average working time of 40,2 hours — sounds good.

In Ger­many, having a sta­ble work place is rated quite highly — even to the extent that people accept lower income. Women often work part time — much more than the average Euro­pean — or not at all. Even if they want to change this situation,it is not always easy. Ger­many is still stuck to some extent in a tra­di­tio­nal role model, and an infle­xi­ble labour mar­ket. Many women that have stu­died hence decide against a family. Depen­ding on which sta­tis­tics you look at, bet­ween 25% and 33% of aca­de­mic women stay without child­ren. Good for pro­duc­ti­vity, bad for demo­gra­phy — and for what else counts in life.


These are just impres­si­ons from some coun­tries. Howe­ver, two fin­dings appear:

First of all, tra­di­tio­nal role models dif­fer a lot. The more gen­der equa­lity is pre­sent in a society, the bet­ter work and pri­vate life can be balan­ced. At the same time, pro­duc­ti­vity is high. No sur­prise: There is more work­force at hand, and employees are more moti­va­ted and more effi­ci­ent. This is directly con­nec­ted with dif­fe­rent models to struc­ture the day. More gen­der equa­lity means more fle­xi­bi­lity during the working day.
Second, also the eco­no­mic situa­tion in a coun­try has a high impact on pos­si­bi­li­ties for work-life balance. The hig­her the unem­ploy­ment rate is, the big­ger is the risk to shift prio­ri­ties towards work — it is an essen­tial ques­tion whe­ther you have a job. 

Digi­ta­li­sa­tion and glo­ba­li­sa­tion will con­ti­nue chan­ging our every day life. But it is up to us to ask our­sel­ves the ques­tion: How do we want to live? Accord­ing to the ans­wer we have to create our lives — and to change what we would like to see dif­fer­ently. 

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