What's not to like about work-life balance?
I wanted to share some thoughts about work-life balance. Germany where I live is widely known for valuing it. The French have more holidays but the Germans have shorter work days, or to be more precise, they end their work days earlier. Germans have this amazing concept that’s hard to translate into English: the Feierabend, i.e. the end of the work day and the personal free time that’s left until bed time. The word itself is quite surprising because it literally means celebration evening. (Every day you celebrate the end of the work day.)
Feierabend really is quite amazing because it’s used like a shield by workers: “I can’t do this now, it’s Feierabend”. It helps maintain a fairly strict separation between work and family life. Of course digital tools blur the lines little by little. But many Germans have their ways to protect it, like spending time outdoors.
They’re a very outdoorsy kinda people. Nature is well integrated into urban life. There are beautiful parks everywhere (and I thought the Brits were the best at gardens! But it turns out they have serious competition from the Germans who’ve made gardens more democratic), lakes you can swim, forests you can walk… and lots of bike lanes you can ride. So they are among the people who spend the most time outdoors on leisure activities.
That’s undoubtedly one of the things I like best about the country (after my newsletter about how Germany punishes mothers, in all fairness I have to also mention the plus sides). I too now spend more money on hiking shoes than work shoes. I like that there are so many trees and green spaces as reminders that there is a life outside work, that we have a body that needs to move and get some fresh air.
What’s not to like about the Feierabend? Nothing. It has even more advantages than you’d think. But behind the façade it’s just not as egalitarian as it could be.👇💡
The many benefits of clearer work-life boundaries
The main challenge of working for home is to establish boundaries. Yes you can stop anytime. But the risk is you’ll never take a break and stay connected to your work most of the time you’re awake, which will make you more stressed, anxious, burnt out …and less productive.
Boundaries are good for mental health, even when you love your work. I’m not sure that “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is good advice. It’s often the most passionate people who are at higher risk of burnout. In fact you should try and do something you love, but always work in moderation. No matter what Elon Musk says, you can “change the world” or simply do a good job in 40 hours a week.
Corporate cultures that leave room for balance and establish clear boundaries are generally more inclusive. The boundaries are a signal that workers’ lives and constraints are respected, that their subservience cannot be taken for granted. That’s why the Germans really could be onto something with their Feierabend concept. As explained in this good BBC article about it:
Feierabend isn’t just a German word for ‘work-life balance’ (…) Instead, the German approach seems to acknowledge that there will always be tension between the work self and the private self. Rather than attempting to reconcile the two, the disconnection that comes with Feierabend establishes boundaries between them. It also usually creates a path between the two states, like dressing for the office and changing after work (…)
The concept of Feierabend acknowledges that work – and being in ‘work mode’ – places demands on a person from which regular relief is needed
A clean cut-off between the work-self and life-self, and finding a way to transition between the two states of being, isn’t just beneficial to the worker but beneficial to employers as well. Even companies see that there’s a problem if people are always on and working 24/7. So, they have to take more time off, they’re more often calling in sick. There are a lot of problems that can be seen if this detachment is not possible.
The fact that few bosses or customers will dare expect a worker to postpone their Feierabend for their sake could be the sign of a more egalitarian culture. The well-being of the customer is not worth more than the well-being of the worker. In fact, in Germany, customer experience and customer service aren’t valued much. I moan a lot about the lack of good customer service, but deep down I also see some wisdom in it.
As consumers we got used to instant gratification, seamless service and low costs so much that we became spoiled. This has led to a growing rift between consumers and workers. And to a kind of restlessness. When everything can be had instantly, nothing provides satisfaction anymore.
“The consumer has become king, forcing companies to reorganise into something more agile, at the expense of employees,” according to Denis Pennel, the director-general of the World Employment Confederation. And it appears this mad dash towards hyper-consumption brings with it greater inequality, wasted resources and rampant pollution. The global pandemic has further revealed the shift from the mass economy of the 20th century to the on-demand economy of the 21st century. As a result, the schism between consumers and the employees serving them has continued to widen.
That’s why I am now convinced there is such a thing as good friction, the friction that comes from learning to wait, respecting other people’s work and learning to plan ahead. (Bad friction comes from bad design, faulty infrastructure and a lack of respect for the customer). “Come back later. Our store is closed” and “You need to pay cash” are two examples of a type of friction that can teach you to value things more because there’s no instant gratification. It may fuel your desire for that thing. Waiting is good. And almost everything can wait.
Today’s supply-chain crises may teach us the value of things and the work these things required. It’s having the unexpected effect of making the toil of previously invisible workers more visible. As a result workers will get paid more. Minimum wages are increasing in many countries. Some workers may be in a better position to ask for a better work-life balance.
The dark side of the German Feierabend
I promised there’d be some criticism in this newsletter. So here it is. As far the German Feierabend is concerned, there are profound inequalities between precarious workers who can’t choose how much they work (they have to work part-time) and those who are economically safe and between men and women. Free time doesn’t mean the same for everyone. A disproportionate amount of women’s free time is spent on domestic chores. For many women Feierabend means “let the unpaid work day begin!”
Also perhaps I’ve previously exaggerated how balanced work and life really are in Germany. It may seem balanced just because people are home very early but everything starts punishingly early. School starts as early as 7:30am. A lot of people get up at 6. In fact the afternoon and evening “presenteeism” typical of French corporate spaces has its morning equivalent in Germany.
In a judgmental way, companies, schools, public works will signal to everyone that they’re hard at work already. “Yes, we're going to start the jackhammering at 7am because there's no reason for you lazy bastards to still be sleeping!” The idea that “the early bird catches the worm” (in German “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund”… how I hate this expression!) is extremely strenuous to those who aren’t morning people.
You won’t be seen as motivated if you haven’t already accomplished much by 8am. To be seen to arrive at work earlier than your coworkers is valued. And again mothers who prepare their children for school won’t be able to arrive as early as non parents and as many fathers.
If your work day starts that early, of course it’ll be finished by 5pm! But by that time you’re already completely washed out. There won’t be much Feier in your Feierabend. You’ll have no energy left for cooking (hence the Abendbrot tradition of eating bread and cheese/sausage for dinner) and you’ll be ready for bed soon.
Last but not least, balancing is not integrating. If you have little autonomy at work, your management is rigid and conservative, there must be a time for work and a time for life. The absence of flexibility and autonomy, i.e. the complete impossibility of mixing (integrating) work and life, will push many people to work only part time. So rigid management and the lack of flexible work options makes full-time work more challenging for mothers.
🧨 💪 I’m working on a new media project 🇫🇷 with a group of inspiring women and men. It’s about women over 45. The Wednesday newsletter will focus on money and work, the Saturday edition on body, sex, love. It’s called Vives Media: “The place of women concerns us all. ViveS is the story of women moving forward in life. It is a digital media that accompanies them in their personal or professional life transitions.” You can subscribe here 🤗
👩💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces: (in 🇬🇧) Gender economics: ‘When we empower women, we all win’, Future of Work: Are you ready for the exponential age?, (in 🇫🇷) Full remote : un aveu d’échec des entreprises ?, Inégalités femmes/hommes au travail : la faute au couple hétérosexuel ?, Le bruit : le pire ennemi des décisions RH ?, Genre et économie : « Donner le pouvoir aux femmes, c’est être tous gagnants ».
🤔 Why do people worry about deficits?, Noah Smith, Noahpinion, October 2021: “One way for people to oppose new social spending without looking cruel, stingy, or heartless is to worry about deficits. Saying “I’d love to help you but I just don’t have the money” is a lot easier on the conscience than saying “I wouldn’t actually love to help you because you don’t deserve more money”. So expressing antipathy for social spending by saying they’re worried about deficits could simply be a way people salve their consciences — or try to look virtuous in front of pollsters, friends, relatives, Twitter followers, or whoever. A substantial fraction of Americans say they want more social spending…but maybe not all of them really do.”
🕸️ What Slack Does for Women, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, October 2021: “Because people tend to prefer managers with deeper voices, “women frequently tell me that they’re advised, when they ask for career advice, that they need to lower the pitch of their voice,” says Kim Elsesser, a psychologist (…). With Slack, “you don’t have to think about any of that.” Women are often punished for not behaving gently and communally. But on the internet, nobody knows you’re a bitch. “One thing that women need to do is not be as aggressive as men (…) So if you can use those same aggressive requests or whatever, and put a little smiley face next to them, and then all of a sudden, they don’t seem as aggressive.”
🇨🇳 Chinese Women Are Dumping Their Boyfriends Over a Feminist Comedian, Viola Zhou, Vice, October 2021: “China ranks 107th out of 156 in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, which measures gender-based disparity in economic opportunity, education, health, and politics. With growing awareness of gender inequality, young women in China are increasingly pushing back against the society’s oppression of women, from the prevalent sexual abuse to workplace discrimination to everyday sexist language—it’s common, for example, for Chinese men to make suggestive, misogynist jokes at workplace or over dinner. The popularity of Yang and her fellow female comedians has reflected women’s desire to be represented in the business of fun.”
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Enjoy your next Feierabend and don’t be an early bird if you don’t want to! 🐦 🛌🏾