Work-life balance in a global context

Work/life balance, WLB, work – and life balance. A subject that was mentioned a fair bit in the company I used to work for. In some companies I know they avoid talking about it, of fear to open the “Pandora’s box”.

A progressive company would want its staff to be healthy and therefore would consider work-life balance as an important factor of its vision for people and performance. However, in an international company it can be quite tricky to set rules of good work-life balance, as the cultural practices vary enormously. Is it OK to arrange meetings in the evenings or start an international meeting a Monday morning? Can you require workers to respond over the weekend? Can you request that someone postpones their holiday due to an urgent issue? It really depends on the culture. In Norway you would probably get a clear and loud NO to postpone someone’s holiday and in Dubai it wouldn’t be an issue to work over the “weekend” as their weekend isn’t Sat/Sunday.

And when it comes to holidays, well, you can’t implement a “company holiday” due to legal reasons. In countries like The Netherlands and France workers in large enterprises enjoy 8 weeks leave (5 weeks + compensation for working 40 hours in a 35 work-week system) as opposed to the United States that have no law that grants employees holidays – although 2 weeks is fairly common.

Then there is the individual aspect. Some people live to work, and some people work to live. Generation X and Generation Y may have different views on what work-life balance means. Some people have very clear opinions on what they want/don’t want, and others are influenced by their surroundings.  One is not better than the other; all have strengths and something to contribute with to the company. As we people are social animals, I believe we are rather influenced by our cultural, company and family standard.  An example; a person lives in a national culture where friend/family time is valued and work should not interfere with this time. S/he grows up in a family of “over-achievers” and starts working in a company where long hours are expected. Two factors against one; family and company against national culture. And where is the individual preference? It can be hard to differentiate with three influencers at the same time. Because we are often influenced by our surroundings, I believe a company has an ethical obligation to promote work-life balance – in the end it serves the company with retention, productivity and morale.

So what could an international company do?

  • A given is to follow the various country laws, and accept them. E.g. a team with people who have 8 weeks and 2 weeks of holiday may feel some jealousy and irritation; this has to be dealt with, not put under the carpet.
  • Another given is an understanding from the top management of the relation between work-life balance and financial performance.
  • Train managers on stress management.
  • Agree on a meeting culture that would suit most people; e.g. no business travel during weekends.
  • Conduct a survey, understand what most people want to be motivated and manage their entire lives (e.g. working from home, evening meetings, travel).
  • In teams; keep open dialogues about work load and share and co-operate whenever possible.
  • Have honest conversations about what work-life balance means to the individual.

Global context or national context; in the end, a company wants high performing staff and employees want an enjoyable work place.

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Reader's Comments »

  1. By PM Hut on février 1, 2012 at 2:47

    Not only US companies give just 2 weeks of vacation per YEAR to their employees, Canadian companies do this also.

    I don’t understand how employees in Canada and the US have no problem with this very short vacation – are people in North America workaholic? That might be the only reasons…

    Usually in Europe most employees take the whole month of August as vacation, which, for us here in Canada is really weird.

  2. By admin on février 2, 2012 at 10:59

    Thank you for your response! Workaholics exist in any culture, but the larger society influence the values of a country – which again influence practical matters like holidays.
    Yes, in France the month of August is THE vacation month. It may be linked to strong family values. What do you think are the values in Canada that drive the fact that you have only 2 weeks of vacation?