I went to my home country over the holiday break. This time around, I was surprised to find that I felt too “foreign” to fit in. I felt more like a tourist in a country that feels vaguely familiar, but no longer mine. That distance made things stand out more. And I returned with a bunch of reflections on the cultural differences.
I have a newfound appreciation for how Europeans balance work and personal life. Work in most European countries is something one does, not something one is. “What do you do?” is not a question you’d hear often at a party. Identity isn’t primarily tied to work. Which I love, since I keep needing to remind myself that I am more than work.
[Note: this is a longer post; I might be able to offer you a more user-friendly reading experience here: https://ambleday.substack.com/p/europeans-do-it-better]
In Europe, work is relegated to working hours. There are laws and policies in place in EU that protect shorter working hours and longer vacation time. Some countries have now made it illegal to expect government workers to respond to emails outside of work hours. There’s free or subsidized access to healthcare, child care, and other key social security benefits.
In some European countries, doctors prefer expecting parents to take extended time off from work during pregnancy. Pregnant people - often as early as 3 or 4 months into pregnancy - are strongly encouraged to take medical leaves. (In trying to find supporting research on this I was surprised to find that there’s only one study focusing on Scandinavia. I know from personal experience - vast majority of my Polish girlfriends would get medical leaves right after their first trimester.) I used to think that this was a symbol of an entitled, lazy work culture. I’ve now come to appreciate how this setup can make the transient experience of pregnancy actually manageable.
Picture this… Pregnant people don’t have to schlep on the subway to work. They don’t have to pretend like everything is fine, when they feel like crap. They don’t have to force themselves to be productive when their brains are in a hormonal fog. They don’t have to try to squeeze in preparing mentally, emotionally, physically, and logistically for a new phase in life in between workshops, zoom calls, and performance reviews. Europe understands that growing humans in uteruses is hard work.
It’s also very common for both mothers and fathers to have extended parental leave benefits, in many European countries. Part of it is usually paid at 100% of compensation, part of it at lower percentages. People tend to take the full allowance, because they recognize that no money can compete with the bond you’re building with your kid. Europe understands that parenting little humans is hard work.
But growing families is also a strategic economic lever, which the government recognizes and supports. From increased consumer spending in the short term, to social security sustenance and labor market strength over the long term. Not just kinder. Europe is also savvier.
It’s been fascinating to learn how many people opt to do part-time work in Europe. In Belgium, 27% of the population works part-time. In Germany, that percentage is 43%. Most of Scandinavia works 37-hour-weeks or shorter. My hypothesis is that this is a lifestyle choice. I believe that Europeans choose a lifestyle that helps them be more present for the multitudes in their lives - kids, hobbies, aging parents, health, fitness. They choose balance over the extra income. They design life to be unhurried.
Meanwhile, in the US, we work longer, have less time off, there are only very few protections, and only in certain states. Healthcare and child care are both fundamentally broken systems. And family leave is not considered a human right, but rather a courtesy on part of your employer. The US culture of long working hours and little paid vacation time is correlated with stress and burnout. Access to mental health services is often limited, particularly for those without insurance, which means that those most vulnerable, working the lowest-paid jobs and longest hours, are at the highest risk. It’s not at all shocking that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are more prevalent in the US.
In the US, bringing your full self to work is a relatively new concept that most companies are only catching up to. In Europe, people’s work and personal lives are interconnected and it’s a welcomed meshing. While working in Norway, it was not unusual for me to see my colleagues’ kids at the office in the afternoons, after daycares closed. To contrast this - when we had our kids - my partner Lukas raised eyebrows at work and was even interviewed by Bloomberg, because he took the full extent of his paternity leave allowance. Gasp. How dare he?!
Another thing that’s particular about work culture in the US is taking PTO. People ask these questions: “What does it say about me if I take PTO when I just joined the company? Should I take PTO when my boss takes hers? How much PTO should I use up every year?” In many European countries - when it’s vacation time, it’s vacation time for most of the country. There are widely accepted “off months” - e.g. August in Italy, July in Denmark. All designed to help people take advantage of the time off more fully, without the dread of returning to a full inbox.
OK, so if you’ve read this far you’re probably thinking… You should just move back, Maria. You are being nostalgic. You miss your European “motherland”.
Well… yes and no.
Yes, I grieve the turbulence, stress, and chaos that comes with trying to have a thriving family life and a thriving work life. It’s so hard to maintain an equilibrium in the hustle culture of NY. I feel nostalgic for what could have been, if say… we had kids in Norway or the UK. I wonder to myself… what would life in Italy or Portugal feel like?
And no - this isn’t purely nostalgic. I am sharing all this because I believe American work culture is ready to explore the European “way”. The “great contemplation” as Paul Millerd is calling it has been transforming our relationships with work and fueling a cultural shift.
I’m not the first in my attempt to pinpoint the systemic exhaustion in American workplaces. Which makes me wonder - how much can I personally do to shift the predominant workplace culture into a new, softer, more human version that would suit me better? Maybe this is a springboard to think about how I show up in the workplace. What work narratives do I reinforce? What decisions do I make about how my team operates? When do I send emails? Who do I choose to align with at work - who are “my people”? How do I draw boundaries with work?
I’m not going to pretend like I have any answers here. I think of these questions as my personal provocations. Ways for me to challenge myself (and maybe those around me a little bit too).
I’m also not going to shy away from the reality that I look at all these issues from a hugely privileged point of view. I work for a company that fosters an amazing work culture and provides fantastic benefits. If I were a single Black Mom, working two jobs, without healthcare insurance or other safety nets - I wouldn’t even be pondering any of those questions. I’d be busy trying to survive.
I’m steeped in privilege. How could I use it for the benefit of others?
What if we - the employees and the founders, freelancers and full-timers, and especially all of us with heaps of privilege - borrowed from the European playbooks? What if - when in positions of influence and power - we challenged the long-established ways of doing things in US workplaces? What if we volunteered with organizations like Moms First with boots-on-the-ground support? What if we assumed change starts with us? What if we did our part? What if work didn’t define our quality of life? What if we defined how we wanted work to work?
All great things start with a question. So I’ll leave you with the inconclusiveness.
But if it feels uncomfortable to sit in this climax - and if this topic is close to your heart and resonates deeply with you - drop me a note. I’d love to find other people who want to think about answering these questions.
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