by Elizabeth Harrin (London)
Think you work a long week? Spare a thought for the Koreans, who work the longest hours, around 2357 a year: that’s over 45 hours a week, every week. The UK and Ireland have the longest working week of the EU states and the Japanese only take an average of 8 days holiday a year. Those long French lunch breaks? I spent two years working in Paris and I promise they are a myth. If we’re so chained to our desks, how do we fit in our personal lives?
Since the 1990’s researchers have documented that we are working longer and at more unpredictable times, partly due to globalisation. Gone are the days of the 9-5, and here to stay are web conferences with Sydney at 10pm on a Friday night. At the same time, we’ve seen an increase in the number of dual income families, lone parent families and working women. Back in the 90’s work/life balance policies were there to help working women: now companies are realising that in order to keep the wheels of business turning, they need to make these policies applicable to everyone.
Well, it seems that not everyone is benefiting. “Work/life balance seems to be a uniquely Western concept right now,” says Jason M. Hancock, President of Sowilo Consulting, LLC. “Japan’s work ethic is phenomenal and is largely responsible for the nation’s transformation from a feudal society in the 1850’s to a world power in less than fifty years. And that work ethic continues to sustain the country’s development. In the years I was in Japan, I do not recall hearing the Japanese speak of work/life balance,” he adds. Hancock’s experience shows that the absence of work/life balance in Japan was a problem for women: “I can’t count the number of times I heard a young Japanese woman complain about an absent father who was thoroughly devoted to the company but forgot his family. Or older women who complained about a husband’s pending retirement: ‘What will I do with him around the house all the time?’ There have even been some attempts by widows to sue the companies that employed husbands who have died, allegedly from stress.”
Asian countries, including Hong Kong and India, typically work a six-day week. That’s just the working culture, although there are some moves to change that. Standard Chartered Bank has moved to a five-day working week with the aim of providing a better quality of life to their staff and thus attracting the best talent. SCB has also introduced flexible and home working policies. “I am able to commute from/to [the] office in a second’s time, hence the hassle of travel, particularly during wet season, is avoided,” says Mala Narasimhan, Associate Vice President. “Working from home gives me time for exercise – I do yoga or go for my evening walk by 5:30 pm. I am able to attend to my small but important personal work like getting clothes ironed. These appear very easy but these activities eat into my weekends making it very hectic.” She also finds she can work better outside the office. “I am able to work peacefully at home, without the disturbance of the desk phones ringing continuously [or] people waiting behind my desk to meet me to discuss things. Working from home lets me read documents which is difficult to do at [the] office.”
National culture plays a part in determining whether you’ll end up with a work/life balance, but there is more to it than that. “I see less of a difference among people of different backgrounds, and more of a difference generationally,” says Lauren Rikleen senior partner with Bowditch & Dewey LLP, and Executive Director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, which works with law firms and business organisations to improve the retention and advancement of women in their workplace. If you are moving to a new country you will have to take into account both culture and age-related differences in working practices. “The critical first thing is to understand the culture you are entering. This involves knowing what is expected in the workplace across a wide variety of behaviours, including working in the office versus working flexibly from somewhere else, hours expected at work, appropriate attire, and how to communicate within the hierarchy at work,” Rikleen adds.
One thing is certain, if you are contemplating an international move, doing some research about where you will end up may help you decide if you can cope with the work/life balance in your host country, as every country has different expectations of what is acceptable when it comes to fitting your personal life in around the edges of your work responsibilities.