Growing up in the United States, I’ve always equated long work days with a high level of success. People who work 50-hour work-weeks are more successful and deserving than those who clock out at 5 pm, regardless of what they do during that window of time. In Berlin and other parts of Europe, the bar for prosperity seems more attainable. People don’t have to be tied to the office and their emails to feel successful. Instead, those who are able to find purpose in their occupations and lead interesting and eventful lives outside of work are regarded as successful.
At home, I hear people talk about work-life balance, but what that means to Americans and Europeans is not the same. I often hear people talk about a “good” work-life balance as the ability to leave work at 5 pm. The scales are balanced if you can manage to get home for dinner and see your family for a few hours. After spending nearing 11 weeks in Germany, I’m beginning to reconsider how I weigh work and life entirely. Rather than pitting work and life against each other, I’m learning that it’s possible for both to contribute an equal sense of purpose to the human experience. Work doesn’t have to be completely consuming or monotonous, and your life outside of work doesn’t have to be limited to vacations.
One striking difference between cities in Europe and the United States is the ratio of chain to home-owned businesses. At home, it’s not uncommon to find a McDonalds or Starbucks on every street corner. Although I still see these places when I travel around Europe, they are far fewer in number. Since I started my internship, I find myself eating at local restaurants and shopping at unique boutiques more often than I do in the States. This indicates a very important difference between European and American cultures, which is that Europeans strongly prefer the diversity of local businesses to the consistency of chains. What this represents to me is the pride and integrity that many Europeans take in their professional work lives. People seem to take a lot of pride in their contributions to small businesses whereas people in American are more impressed with status and wealth. People don’t define their success with bigger paychecks and more hours on the clock, but with the meaning of the contributions that they make to their communities. Beyond just professional accomplishments, Europeans also consider personal achievements successes.
In Germany, it’s commonplace for full-time employees to earn five weeks or more of paid time off each year. This extended time away from work allows people to travel and take long vacations with their families. By consequence, these people end up learning more about foreign cultures and even learning new languages. These experiences cannot be overemphasized because nothing forces a person to grow more than living outside of their comfort zone. It’s also important to recognize that impactful experiences beyond the workplace are not in isolation. There are certain skills that are improved when planning for extended trips abroad and navigating foreign cultures. If nothing else, visiting another country is a fast way to increase empathy and compassion for other people. When you’re struggling to overcome a language barrier or find your way in a new city, a patient waitress or an understanding smile from a stranger is something to be extremely grateful for. For me, I can see how these experiences could be directly related to better teamwork and communication in the workplace. In Europe, a successful person is well-traveled and can communicate with people from many different cultures.
Finding a healthy work-life balance doesn’t mean simply spending less time at work. For my coworkers, it means integrating the purpose of their work with the way they identify themselves outside of work. Being hardworking, productive and dedicated in your career doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice the quality of the time that you spend outside of work. Instead, the passion my coworkers have at the office tends to bleed into their personal lives in the form of hobbies and other interests. On the other hand, you don’t have to count down the minutes until you can leave work to start living your real life. It’s not only possible for the two to coexist on the same spectrum, but the people who are able to find fulfillment in both arenas seem to be less stressed and more productive. To the people who feel such a stark contrast between their work and personal lives, I would challenge them to take an honest look at the quality and purpose of how that time is spent. Rather than tracking the amount of time that I spend at work and at home, why don’t we measure our success by the way we feel at the end of the day?