Balancing act: OECD notes U.S. work-life balance problems

Published: Tuesday, June 25 2013 11:27 a.m. MDT

A recent report from the OECD showed that the U.S. ranked 28th among member nations for work-life balance. That's in the bottom quarter of the rankings. Ouch.

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One of the many things I like about living in Utah is that life here can have a surprisingly international flavor at times.

Due to some unique cultural factors — and, particularly, the missionary program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — thousands of the state's residents have lived abroad for some part of their lives. They spend years learning new languages and absorbing foreign cultures and then they incorporate other nations' traditions into their family lives when they return.

This doesn't mean that we are never insular at times, too, but it does follow that many of our friends and neighbors have at least some awareness of what life is like outside the borders of our unassuming little state.

As someone who spent a year studying and earning a master's degree at a university in Cardiff, Wales, in the United Kingdom, I believe that expanded view of life is helpful in the years after one's return from abroad. I appreciate the perspective I gained while living within another culture, and it has shaped my impressions of the world in the years that have passed since my return.

I was reflecting on my experience in Britain and my workplace experiences here after perusing the "Better Life Index" that was released last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The OECD report indicated that the U.S. "performs very well in overall measures of well-being, as shown by the fact that it ranks among the top countries in a large number of topics in the 'Better Life Index.’"

For example, the report said, the average U.S. household net-adjusted disposable income of $38,001 per year was significantly more than the OECD average of $23,047 per year, although it noted that the top 20 percent of the U.S. population earns about eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent.

Despite the economic struggles of recent years, the U.S. also ranked higher than average in employment, and our education system was equal to or better than average for the OECD on several different measures.

The report said our life expectancy at birth here is almost 79 years, which is about one year lower than the OECD average. (I'm afraid I may have been in danger of dragging that average down thanks to my sweet tooth and sedentary lifestyle. But don't worry, America. I'm working on both!)

The OECD reported we in the U.S. have "a strong sense of community and moderate levels of civic participation," citing in the latter case voter turnout that is below the average of the countries that belong to the organization. That's unacceptable, in my opinion, but I know the ugliness of recent campaigns has led many people to turn away from political participation.

I found these statistics quite interesting, and I'd suggest you give the full report a look if you like that kind of thing.

But the information that really resonated with me dealt with work-life balance.

The report said that people in the U.S. work 1,787 hours per year, which is above the OECD average of 1,776 hours.

"Around 11 percent of employees work very long hours, higher than the OECD average of 9 percent, with 16 percent of men working very long hours compared with 6 percent for women," the report said.

Why does that matter? The report put it succinctly enough: "Evidence suggests that long work hours may impair personal health, jeopardize safety and increase stress."

Many U.S. workers would probably look at that short list and say, "Yes, yes and yes."

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