THE BLOG
10/17/2007 11:47 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Of Course You Can Live and Work

Today is Wednesday. All that is special about this particular Wednesday is that my kids are on vacation -- and I'm still working. It isn't working from home that makes this feasible -- if anything, that makes it harder. But my husband has taken the day off so that I can concentrate without interruption. That's how we do school vacations these days. It isn't the way we used to do them -- but now we live in the UK.

There's an ocean of misunderstanding about the differences between the U.S. and Europe when it comes to issues of work/life balance. Americans look at Europe's shorter working day and long vacations and see decadence and laziness, Donald Rumsfeld's "old Europe" whose population lacked the entrepreneurial courage to seek their fortunes in America. I will never forget the chief executive I once worked for who, as he contemplated expansion into Europe, sighed with despair that this was, after all, a continent full of the people who hadn't got on the boat.

Europeans aren't immune to this kind of stereotyping themselves. For them, the American breakfast meeting is an abomination; it starts work too early and invites the intrusion of business into what should be a family occasion. The Americans' long hours and short vacations to a European represent symptoms of adolescent frenzy, an absence of discipline and judicious time management.

Having worked in both places, I think there's some truth in both stereotypes. But what I'm most intrigued by is that the far greater legislative provision for work/life balance in Europe hasn't incurred a great cost. Productivity levels between the two cultures are about the same; what minor differences there may be are explained away by America's more aggressive adoption of new technologies. But what underlies the difference between work styles is, fundamentally, values. Europeans like to think that they work to live. Americans, they say, live to work.

How that works out in reality is intriguing. My husband can stay home from work today because it is a school holiday and everyone knows that -- because school holidays are pretty much the same across the country. Most women work, so mothers and fathers have the same stress at the same time. Everyone recognizes that something has to give. So one day my husband's boss stays home to mind the kids; next time, his wife will. The fact that he has to do that means that he gives my husband permission to do likewise. Everyone's in it together.

More strikingly, no one's a hero for abandoning their family. In her brilliant study of American corporate life, Arlie Russell Hochschild, demonstrated that providing family benefits makes no difference where the culture dictates that anyone who takes advantage of them is branded a loser. She'd find a different story in Europe, where you are far more likely to be judged by how long a vacation you took and how interesting it was. Normal parents take two weeks; great parents take more. The seaside is fine but Pompeii and Vesuvius are better. Time with your kids is part of their education -- and part of a parent's contribution to society.

It helps that, although vacation provision in Europe is generous, the summer break is typically only about six weeks. Moreover, there are moves afoot better to synchronize the professional calendar with the school calendar. France and Germany are exploring all-year schools and the British educational system already features many schools that will keep your children creatively occupied until six or seven at night. Instead of expecting parents to leave home, collect their kids, drive them to ballet and soccer and then get them home in time for homework, these schools offer dozens of after school activities, including homework supervision, all within school grounds. The goal of these initiatives is to offer a rich range of activities but also to address the realities of most parents' schedules. After all, most jobs just don't finish at 3.30.

The most striking difference of all, of course, is family leave. Americans are generally shocked to discover that they are one of only six countries in the world without statutory maternity leave. (The other countries are Australia, New Zealand, Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea.) European provision varies across countries but is never less than six months, but perhaps what is most striking is that fathers are now a crucial part of the picture. In Iceland, parents can take nine months' paid leave -- three for the mother, three for the father and the rest to be used as the couple chooses. Sweden's 13 month provision (at 80 percent pay) has created a gold standard by insisting that at least three of those months are taken by the father. If both parents don't take leave, they receive less money. It's an unequivocal way of ensuring that children get attention from two parents and that women aren't penalized for being childbearers.

That such legislation has passed often amazes Americans. But there are many reasons why it has passed. Making such provisions statutory creates a level playing field; every company operates under the same constraints. But there's also mounting evidence that flexible work schedules and paternity leave aren't just a benefit to employees -- they benefit the employer too. Fathers return from work more organized and better communicators. Absenteeism goes down, job satisfaction goes up. Parenthood, it turns out, is great management training.

Good childcare provision, flexible working arrangements and family leave can reduce staff turnover and staff burnout. But to Europeans, those business benefits are just added extras. The true issue for them is that if you believe in family, and the social cohesion that strong families confer, it isn't good enough just to say so. You must give it legislative force. Anything else is lip service. Of course, laws alone don't change attitudes, but having the law on your side eases the personal transformation that profound organizational change requires.

I still find it hard to get used to. It took me over a year to accept that weekends are time off, not time to catch up on the work I haven't managed to finish in the week. And it still requires a conscious effort to 'confess' that the reason I can't attend a meeting is because I promised I'd go to the school concert. But even more incredible to me than my own change is my husband's. He can do what I can do because it is what everyone does. Change happens, I'm learning, not when there are exceptions but when there are new norms.