“In America, it’s all about work.” That’s what a relative of mine said who had the chance to live in both Central America and the United States.
He was explaining to me the main differences about how people live and work outside of the States. He said when he lived in America, he didn’t even think about taking time off of work, because it was all about finishing a project, creating new ones to make strides in his company and spending a lot of time thinking about bills and upward mobility.
But in Panama, he said, more importance was placed on other things like family, being away from work and enjoying the life that work provides.
Sure, folks still worked hard to reach whatever goals they’d set for themselves, but the balancing act of work and home life were done way better, and he thought that in the States a lot of people either didn’t want balance or they didn't know how to acheive it.
My cousin said he felt guilty when he took off from work when living in the U.S., but in Panama he felt guilty if he worked too much, which was a huge difference.
Well, recent studies by American Express and the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that huge difference in work styles my cousin was talking about, as Americans only take 12 vacation days out of the year, compared to people in Spain, Denmark, Brazil and France who take 30 vacation days a year.
It's a challenge
Experts point out two main reasons that make work-life balance so challenging for Americans.
First, U.S. companies offer employees are far fewer vacation days compared to some other countries. In Brazil and Denmark workers get 30 days off a year. Employers don't necessarily think they're being generous, they think 30 days off is what's needed so people can stay productive, happy and engaged in their work and personal lives.
Another reason Americans are taking fewer vacation days is that many are struggling with being able to pull themselves away from work. A separate report shows that 56% of working moms said it’s “very” or “somewhat” difficult to balance their work and their personal lives, and as a result one area of life doesn’t get the attention it needs much of the time.
“Stress and work life balance issues are just as challenging for fathers as they are for mothers,” said Kim Parker of the Pew Foundation’s Social and Demographic Trends Project in a published interview. “We found that an equal share of [dads] said they were having a hard time balancing work and family life as moms did.”
Teresa Taylor, who wrote the book “The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work-Life Success," told Forbes that putting your home life over your work life is the best thing you can do to achieve proper balance, and being all the way present, no matter where you are in your day, is essential.
“Stay in the moment,” she said.
“When you’re at work in a meeting, be there. When you’re at home, be there. If you’re in a business meeting, don’t be wishing to be somewhere else. Be present where you are, and don’t feel guilty.
“If there is something wrong at home, you need to work it out. It will always be nagging at you at the office. At the end of the day, work is work. You might change jobs, companies; you may not even work at all. But your cornerstone is your home life. It’s a grounding point you can always come back to,” said Taylor.
In addition, the American Express report shows that out of the 140 million Americans who took summer vacation in 2012, two thirds chose to stay home during their break, making "staycations" a pretty popular way of taking time off.
The average cost of going on a vacation and remaining in the States is $1,180, according to the report and an average gas price of $3.38 per gallon in 2012 was a significant reason people chose to stay put this year.
And of the people who will actually take a vacation in 2013, 44% said they would reconsider if gas prices go up over the summer, as finances seem to be a big reason why people aren’t traveling.
The report finds that over 60% of people will have a "staycation" to save money, 48% said staying at home during a vacation is just “less hassle” and 47% said they don’t travel during vacations, because they’re able to have “more quality time” with their families--which can be true, because we all know certain vacations that include flying, renting cars and a lot of walking can be more of a job than your 9 to 5 is.
But actually taking the necessary time out from work is crucial for reprioritizing all of your responsibilities and if you don’t do that, you’ll always be creating new tasks for yourself, since you’ll always be in work mode, and that happens all the time, says Taylor.
She says people need to do a better job of letting go of certain tasks.
“Some things are not going to happen,” she says. “But there are usually multiple ways to get things done, if you just pause to think about it. Can you do it differently? Can you task it out to someone else? Does this really need to get done at all? Sometimes we create work for ourselves.”
“My biggest pet peeve is people who create reports,” adds Taylor. “I tell people, ‘Try not creating it this week and see if anyone calls you.’”