The Way We Work
September 24, 2012 by Amy Sept

"Joie de vivre is an attitude. It's a decision you make to live a life of joy. It's an invitation to this dance called life. All you have to do is leave the door slightly ajar and listen for the music."
— Jamie Cat Callan, from Bonjour, Happiness!

Work, family, friends, self — I spend so much time considering work-life balance it’s practically a hobby. And I’m not alone: The Society of Human Resource Management found that 89% of working Americans think it’s a problem.

A life where work is part of you but doesn’t define who you are — despite my mobile office, it’s my ideal more than reality. A few days spent wandering in northern France this summer gave me plenty to ponder, however. I couldn’t help but wonder: Have the French had it figured out all along?

La vie en rose

("Life through rose-colored glasses" or, literally, "life in pink.")

Long leisurely lunches. Bikes everywhere. Cell phones off the table. Gourmet food and excellent wine around every corner. A schedule that prioritizes time with friends and family.

If you’ve read anything about balanced living and stress management, you’ll know advice generally follows a theme — like these pillars of happiness recommended by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Devoting time to family and friends
  • Appreciating what you have
  • Maintaining an optimistic outlook
  • Feeling a sense of purpose
  • Living in the moment

In living color, I'd found a beautiful country that seemed to have evolved around these principles of healthy living. Within a few short hours of landing, for example, I had stumbled into town with nowhere to go as shopkeepers stepped out for their noon to 2 p.m. lunch break.

Sunday shopping was off the agenda, too. “We take Sundays to indulge in parks, picnics and socializing,” noted one Parisian on a TripAdvisor forum.

I had landed in France, and found myself surrounded by people effortlessly living the kind of life I strive for. The question I couldn't help but ask: Does it work?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

("The more it changes, the more it's the same thing.")

"Alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive. Capacity, interest, and mental endurance all wax and wane. Plan accordingly."
— Timothy Ferriss, from his book The 4-Hour Workweek

The French seem to revel in the moment, holding fast to a lifestyle that prioritizes friends, family and self.

Legislation to allow Sunday shopping in select regions passed by a slim majority a few years ago, with opponents arguing against what they saw as the erosion of family values.

And French workers rank third for fewest hours worked among 35 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — likely due in part to the cultural emphasis on leisure time.

These details point to work-life boundaries that echo what so many professionals struggle to put in place. The problem is that the numbers don’t seem to back it up.

Just a few years ago, Business Insider argued that, when GDP per capita was compared against the number of hours worked, the French were the most productive people in the world. However, the recent economic lag has been tough on developed economies — the Eurozone perhaps most acutely among them. While France weathered the recession better than many of its neighbours, recent indications hint that all is not well. For example:

The numbers today paint a weaker picture than the French have come to expect, a fact that’s been driving controversial labour reforms in France that business leaders and French President Francois Hollande hope will put the country on more competitive footing.

The mental health numbers aren’t much better. Given that stress busters seem to come so naturally for the French, I was surprised to learn not only that the World Health Organization (WHO) found the U.S. and France almost nose-to-nose when it comes to depression rates, but that another survey found French women to be among the most stressed in the world.

"There’s no change in biological depression, but what’s going up is the more mild depression," Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the WHO study, told Bloomberg News regarding the rise in depression rates for U.S. and France.

"Objective things haven’t changed," he said. "We have an expectation that everything’s going to turn out perfect but it doesn’t."

Le bon vivant

(Literally "the good liver"; someone who loves life, loves pleasure.)

"Our needs and interests are different. Our hopes and responsibilities are different. You must create the optimal individualized work-life balance strategy for yourself." 
— Mireille Guiliano, from her book Women, Work & The Art of Savoir Faire

Economics and statistics aside, I still think the French are on the right track — although many an expert has noted that it’s not about copying a particular formula but figuring out what works specifically in your life.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve been on a mission to recapture some of the joie de vivre that inspired me:

  • Making time for a real lunch break, and even a quick walk, instead of dropping crumbs over the keyboard as I eat and type;
  • Visiting my local farmer’s market for local produce and fresh baking;
  • Defining clearer boundaries between time at work and time at play;
  • Keeping my phone in my bag — on silent — when spending time with family and friends;
  • Appreciating what I’m doing in the moment, whether I’m working or relaxing, without worrying as much about what comes next.

Old habits die hard, so my conversion is very much a work in progress. However, with a clear vision of lively bistros and lounging in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon to draw on, I remain hopeful.

How have your travels inspired you? What cultural elements have you worked into your life? I would love to read your tales and observations in the comments section below.

Amy Sept

Managing Editor

As Managing Editor at oDesk, Amy Sept has more than a decade of communications experience and a passion for helping nonprofits and small businesses succeed. She is an experienced freelancer and the founder of Nimbyist Communications, a marketing and public relations business specializing in nonprofit promotions. She has previously studied both journalism and music, and before launching Nimbyist was manager of communications for a mid-sized… read more

  • Shannon

    Amy, this is such a wonderful article! After spending some time in France, it was obvious that their priorities as far as work-life balance are concerned are different than ours. Especially the whole 'August break' idea, where many employees take off for most, if not all of August to take a summer vacation with the family. The companies prepare for that time off, and people expect a slightly different level of service during the down period. I also had a conversation with a man picking his kids up from school at 3pm - he told me his employer understood that he had obligations to his family that superceded his need to be in the office all the time just to be "putting in time."

    I've also read that in Germany, there is an idea that those who work more than the 9-5 work day are considered less efficient employees because it's viewed as an inability to get what you need to get done at work and then get out of there to tend to other needs. So different than in the U.S. where many view the guy who stays until 8pm to finish that presentation as the hardest worker in the company!

    Especially with our technological abilities to telecommute and work remotely, it would be great to see more employers rethink the 40+ hour work week that is expected from employees and instead reward a culture of productivity. It would take experimentation, cooperation, and patience, for companies to revolutionize the traditional office... and in an downtrodden economy such as this where many employees are happy just to HAVE a desk to sit at 40 hours a week, perhaps right now we don't mind spending a little time at the office to ensure we have a job to come back to tomorrow. But as you said, our work-life balance not only affects us, but also our relationships with others including friends, spouses, and especially our children, so its definitely important to explore these matters both personally and institutionally.

    • Amy Sept

      Hi Shannon -- Thanks so much for sharing your own observations!

      I find your comment about Germany very interesting. Many North American employers are already flexible around personal commitments, but I think you're right; we adjust our behavior to match the expectations and institutional culture around us, and the shift towards a "culture of productivity" is still a work in progress.

      A number of surveys, like the Gyro/Forbes "@Work State of Mind" report released earlier this year, show this isn't at all limited to North America. However, I appreciate that it's not necessarily "the norm" for everyone. I think there's a lot we can learn from each other, from all these different cultures, to find a balance that works. ~ Amy