As a recent college graduate, navigating the working world takes a bit of an adjustment to say the least. Saying goodbye to naps and chilling with your friends for hours; saying hello to cubicles and office politics isn’t easy. And it definitely isn’t easy when you live in a place that has a completely different idea of work-life balance from your own. That place could be the country in which you were born or a country where you are living for a while. Having spent significant time in all three countries talked about in this article, I find that navigating work-life balance, or integration, is difficult for many people in a variety of countries.
The United States
America is a country built on the ideology that if you work hard you’ll be successful. While it’s a fact this isn’t always true we still have a system that promotes hard work but not “smart work.” Smart work in this instance means working more efficiently for fewer hours. In many American companies the idea of taking a full hour for your lunch or having a month long vacation to recharge and focus on health, wellness, family and friends is frowned upon. It signals that you’re lazy or don’t take your job seriously. It is a tragedy, especially for our mental and physical health, to be subjected to sitting in one place staring at a computer screen for 8+ hours a day five days a week. Quite frankly, other undesirable things such as navigating workplace politics and meetings seems easier than forcing myself to sit at a computer screen under harsh fluorescent lights for the majority of my week. I used to think there was something wrong with me for being unable to work under these conditions, but in fact I think there’s something wrong with the system.
After working in China and developing relationship with my Chinese peers I started to understand and form opinions about work-life in China. From what I experienced, the culture in modern day China revolves around money, image, status and wealth. For many Chinese, they work hard to have a chance at higher wages, which they believe will bring them happiness and prestige. This is not completely different from some American ideals about success. When people have free time they spend it shopping (obtaining status symbols) and going to clubs where they spend lots of money on tables, bottle service, and very expensive food for the sole purpose of showing off to other club-goers and sharing their escapades on social media sites like WeChat and QQ. It seemed to me that life in China is centered on getting money to show it off. It seems nearly impossible to balance work, life, and figure out early on in your career what is really important.
Work-life balance in Italy should be renamed life-work balance with the emphasis on life instead of work. In theory Italy has great work-life balance with siestas and the added bonus of three to four weeks off for vacation in August. From the hours of around 12-2 workers go back home for lunch and a little R&R. After which they happily, and well-rested, work for the rest of the afternoon. However, the slower pace of life in Italy does account for a lot of inefficiencies and bureaucracy. Despite this, one Italian woman’s words on work-life balance are, “work will always be there but your friends and family are more enjoyable and we are here to enjoy this life.” In this sense, Italians know what’s really important–even if it means certain things take a little longer.
Living in all three countries has taught me about work-life balance and prioritization. Personally, I’ve adopted the Italian mindset of friends, family and relationships first and work second. This prioritization was cemented in my mind when I saw what the reverse was like in China and having grown up in the United States. In America the thought of relationships first-work second is seen as being backwards and unproductive. I believe it isn’t. If an employee’s personal life, mental and physical wellbeing are in tiptop shape it’s much easier to be efficient and exceed expectations in a timely and cost-effective manner. In fact, more employers should consider the benefits of a company wide siesta or increases in vacation time because a refreshed and healthy employee makes for a great employee. We all have to navigate work-life balance, and hopefully it can be done no matter what country we are working and living in.