What the Europeans Can Teach Us about Work/Life Balance

Early in my career, I came across an opportunity for a contract finance job overseas. It was only one year, and it was a great opportunity to What the Europeans are Teaching Us About Work/Live Balanceadvance my career.

During high school, I dreamt about living and working in Europe. This organization was multi-cultural, so speaking English was required. I knew this opportunity was rare, so I jumped at the chance.

I learned so much about the finance field during my time there. However, I learned just as much about the cultural aspect. Living and working in South East Europe really gave me a new perspective on how work and home life are viewed. This is what I learned.

It Was OK to Leave at 5:00 on the Dot

I didn’t have much work experience at the time – I was only 21. However, I did know from the short time that I worked at my previous banking job that most of my coworkers didn’t leave exactly at closing time. In fact, while I worked at the bank, we were always required to stay at least 15 minutes after closing time, or until the last customer left.

My first day working for this European organization was different. My boss was puzzled that I didn’t have my stuff packed up at 5:00 p.m. And it wasn’t just because I was new. Even the higher-ups left right on the dot. This was mostly the case the entire time that I worked there. By 5:05, I was already perusing the walkway next to the river as I headed home.

While 15 minutes per day may not seem like much, it adds up. Just 15 minutes per day can add up to 5 hours plus per month! That’s valuable time that could be spent exercising, spending time with loved ones, learning something new etc.

This isn’t just about cutting work short, however. I found that I was more productive throughout the day. Knowing that I had to leave right at 5:00 made me realize that my time at work was precious. My coworkers and I still talked, but conversations weren’t as long because we all wanted to leave for the day.

This was the norm. To me, this was a very efficient use of time. I thought back to some instances in the U.S where a few coworkers constantly had overtime, so talking to other coworkers for 30 minutes or more did not faze them. Time was a never-ending luxury for them, but it left the rest of us scrambling to get our work finished.

However, my time at this European organization was not all work and no play. To make up for not chatting extensively on the job, my coworkers and I would have lunch together. In fact, there was not a single week where I did not have lunch with my coworkers! And unlike in the U.S, nobody ate lunch at their desk. Food was savored and enjoyed in the company of others.

Vacation Time was Important

When I started my job there, my boss told me that I had four weeks of vacation. I remember my eyes going wide and my boss looking at me laughingly. He then pointed out that he had six weeks. My four weeks off and his six did not include holidays either!

Europeans take their time off seriously. And it wasn’t used up on a day off here or there. It was quite the norm to take 2 weeks or more off altogether. Nobody was upset when someone was off. This was just the custom—especially in the summer. Working parents spent this time traveling to other nearby European countries with their children. Americans may find taking this much time off absurd, but the business kept running.

A local restaurant that my coworkers and I frequented often even closed for an entire month so that the owner and staff could have ample vacation time. This would be unheard of in the U.S! When the restaurant owner reopened, business went on as usual. The value that Europeans place on time off really struck a chord with me. The two week vacation policy that most U.S companies adhere to is not written in stone and I never forgot my previous workplace’s vacation policy.

They Enjoy the Little Things

While I lived in Europe, I learned that you didn’t have to spend a ton of money to go out or have a good time. Numerous cafés lined the city streets and you could enjoy a cup of coffee for less than a couple of dollars and people-watch. Café owners and wait staff did not seem to be in a hurry to get people out and it wasn’t unusual for people to sit at these cafés for a couple of hours at a time.

People would socialize with friends at these street side cafés and then go strolling throughout the town. It was quite wonderful to see so many people walking and looking at the window displays of the shops. Oftentimes, they ran into people they knew. Looking at art displays and listening to impromptu street-side music performances were also a regular occurrence. Before you knew it, hours had gone by and you spent it socializing, exercising, and enjoying the fresh air—all without spending too much money.

This is one thing that I try to recreate here back home. Although we don’t have many outdoor cafés in the city I live in, I can still enjoy the little things in life without attaching a price tag to everything.


There are many benefits of living in the U.S, and my coworkers overseas have mentioned that to me on more than one occasion. However, we could do a little better as far as restructuring our work/life balance. We all know that there are many more important things in life than money and changing our mindset is essential. So, act like a European today. Leave work on time. Enjoy some coffee in the park and plan your next vacation adventure!

1 thought on “What the Europeans Can Teach Us about Work/Life Balance”

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    I recently read that being busy all the time is the new status symbol in the U.S. I wish we would instead focus on leaving work at work. As a teacher, I used to take so much work home all the time — grading papers, lesson planning, parent emails. But now I set a time limit for myself and don’t even bring my laptop home. Just like you found, it makes me so much more productive when I know I have a deadline for myself each day.

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