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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."

The OECD report goes on to point out that, "The more people work, the less time they have to spend on other activities, such as time with others or leisure. The amount and quality of leisure time is important for people’s overall well-being, and can bring additional physical and mental health benefits."

In fact, people in the U.S. devote 66 percent of each day, or 14.3 hours, to personal care, such as sleeping and eating, and to leisure activities like spending time with family and friends, playing games and watching TV. That's less than the OECD average of 14.9 hours.

Add these factors together, and you discover that the U.S. landed 28th among the OECD nations for work-life balance. That's in the bottom quarter of the rankings.

Ouch.

It's easy to argue that comparing the U.S. to other countries in this way may not always be valid. We have different systems of government, economic models and cultures that play a role in our ranking.

In fact, despite our long hours at work here, the OECD report noted that Americans are more satisfied with their lives than many people in other member nations. Here in the U.S., the report said, 83 percent of people indicate that "they have more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc.) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc.). This figure is higher than the OECD average of 80 percent."

So if we're working longer and harder than our colleagues in those other countries, it doesn't matter, because we're still happier. And we all know those Europeans, especially, are lazy compared to us, obsessed as they are with their extended vacations and government benefits. Right?

Well, wait a minute. I don't like everything about the economic systems in other OECD nations — in fact, I far prefer the opportunities and self-reliance that are hallmarks of our system, despite its imperfections. However, I also think we can't automatically repeat the mantra that our system is best and use that as an excuse to ignore good ideas from elsewhere.

I believe that work-life balance will be important to our economic competitiveness as a nation in the future, and I think Americans possess the innovative spirit and drive to improve our ranking in this area to the overall benefit of our unique economic system.

Many of us here in Utah, and throughout the U.S., have experienced at least a taste of what it's like to live and work in another country. Why can't we use that perspective and the good ideas we viewed elsewhere to build a better culture of work-life balance here?

I'd argue that we're perfectly situated to do just that, but I'd welcome your comments. Send me your ideas, and I'll share some of them in a future column.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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