No more mail after work? 20 days of paid vacation? Amid COVID-19, Canadians Rethink Work-Life Balance – and Look to Europe for Ideas

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When Canadian teacher Helen Ng moved to the city of Toulouse in southern France in 2017, she couldn’t believe how different social norms were from what she had experienced so far. .

“No one would care if you had a two hour lunch. On the other hand, if you quickly eat a sandwich at your desk, people might look at you worriedly and ask you if there is something wrong, ”Ng said.

It took a few adjustments to customs, like spending whole evenings enjoying dinner with friends, but she soon realized that she “really liked it.”

While many of her colleagues were motivated and career-oriented, the working days were shorter and the annual vacation was more generous than in Canada or Hong Kong, where she had worked up to 70 hours a week. years ago.

Ng had moved overseas in the first place due to poor prospects for teachers in Vancouver, British Columbia, where many struggle with the notoriously high cost of living for years before landing full-time employment.

Almost a decade later, she plans to return to Canada, but worries about quality of life factors such as financial security.

However, months of living in a pandemic reality have sparked widespread questioning about priorities when it comes to time spent working or with friends and family, as those who are lucky enough to have jobs find it difficult to keep up. stay productive while caring for dependents at home.

These stressors are particularly acute for many essential frontline workers, who are at greater risk of possible infection, and for those in small economy industries, who typically do not receive extended or day health care benefits. sickness pay.

Many Canadians may think that our standards could also use a culture shift.

Could a bright side of COVID-19 be that Canada now has an opportunity to implement work-life balance lessons in parts of Europe?

In the 2019 Mercer Quality of Life Survey, European cities boasted of the best quality of life in the world, with Vienna, Zurich and Munich ranking first, second and third globally. Thirteen of the top 20 places in the world were taken by European cities.

The American human resources consultancy annually assesses living conditions in more than 450 cities. Vancouver ranked third for overall quality of life, but scored lower in affordability.

There are structural differences in labor policies: workers in the European Union benefit from a minimum of 20 days of paid vacation per year. In Canada, the minimum vacation for a year of full-time employment is 10 days and in the United States, there is no minimum paid vacation imposed by the federal government. French law prohibits companies with more than 50 employees from expecting staff to respond to emails after work.

“Canada is such an interesting place in so many ways. We are a hybrid between Europe and the United States and the United States, the ideal worker is one who works constantly – and who works constantly, ”said Donna Lero, professor emeritus and researcher in labor and labor policy. family at the University. from Guelph.

“When I was at the office, I often ate lunch at my desk as well. There is time pressure. The workload is often very heavy. Many Canadians have internalized the idea that work is the top priority and I think the pandemic has really challenged us to rethink that, ”she told The Star.

Lero said countries with high quality of life do not depend on companies to set policies that give employees the flexibility to manage family commitments and other personal issues.

“If you look at a country like Holland, for example, or Denmark, or the Nordic countries, it’s not just about generous parental leave and vacation.

“This is how these things fit in with other issues, like transportation, so that people don’t spend an hour on a freeway coming and going to work or managing trains that don’t run very well. good.”

Canada should take a much broader approach to improving the quality of life, which would include strategic support for public policies as well as paradigm shifts on the part of individuals and businesses, Lero said.

Sanam Kader, 30, left a relatively well-paying job in Toronto last year because she found that even without children, she was barely able to save her salary each month.

“I got to work one hour each way by public transit. I didn’t have a car because the traffic was horrible and I ended up spending $ 300 a month on Uber for various trips, ”Kader said.

With the rent and other costs of living rising, Kader didn’t see how she could save for her future. She decided to move, but first made a list of what she liked. It included a good transit system, career opportunities, affordable housing, quality health care, and a convenient location.

She now lives in the artistic district of Friedrichshain in Berlin and works as a business development manager for fashion e-commerce company Zolando.

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“For the first time in my life, I don’t commute an hour to work. My office is 15 minutes away, and I don’t think I realized how stress relieving it was until I didn’t have to commute, ”she said.

For many Canadians who were able to work from home for the first time during the COVID-19 lockdown, the sudden absence of long commutes was a revelation. An April 2020 Gallup poll found that three in five American workers would prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible after public health restrictions are lifted.

Kader now saves a third of his income each month, riding his bike instead of taking Uber, and feels much more optimistic about his future. In January, the Berlin government approved a five-year rent freeze and cap to slow gentrification so the city can remain affordable.

“In Germany people have a full hour for lunch and six weeks vacation is the norm. I think it gives people more time to develop meaningful friendships, which is so important for mental health, ”she says.

“The city is not so expensive that creative people are rejected. My social and support network here is something that makes me feel at home.

Kader recognizes that leading an international expatriate life is a privilege. His parents are from Bangladesh and most countries around the world do not allow Bangladeshi passport holders to travel without a visa.

But she says Canadians don’t need to move to another country to reap the benefits of reassessing their priorities.

“There are ways to align our values ​​with what we expect from life even if large relocations are not possible,” she said.

Likewise, Ng warns against the romanticization of work-life culture in Europe. She finds the French work ethic quite traditional and believes that it would actually be easier for workplaces in North America to accommodate more flexible working arrangements – such as allowing remote work or working hours. flexible working.

“Some of my friends in the United States and Canada will have the option of working from home for the indefinite future, but the mood here in France is that companies are eager to get employees back to the office as soon as possible,” he said. she declared.

For Melissa Mongoven, who lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her partner in Vancouver’s expensive Kitsilano neighborhood, her COVID-19 lifestyle change was boosted by the birth of her newborn son.

“My mom bear’s hormones were at full blast. And when it looked like the cases were going to spread, we booked a U-Haul, a friend helped us pack our spot and we moved to (the predominantly rural community of) Summerland the next evening, ”she says. .

Health coach Melissa Mongoven and her family moved from Vancouver to the small town of Summerland in the Okanagan region when COVID-19 hit the province in March 2020.

Mongoven had just finished a hectic 20-year career as an event planner to start a health coaching business, which she can manage remotely. Her family currently lives in a house that previously belonged to her husband’s late grandparents and enjoys the great outdoors and access to nature. They plan to settle permanently in a small town.

But while some of his former colleagues are considering similar career changes because the event planning industry has collapsed, Mongoven hopes people won’t put too much pressure on themselves to figure it all out right away.

“I think overall people just need to focus on what they can do. What’s the best thing they can do for themselves right now? How can you nourish your mind, body, and spirit as much as possible now? “

She points to two of her cousins ​​who married Spaniards. “I visited them years ago and thought, wow, is this their life?” They ate healthy, took naps every day and didn’t work very long days… Why are we so stressed all the time? “

One difference, Mongoven says, is that in North America the idea of ​​a good life often involves material goods and the acquisition of property, while in Europe people seem to place more importance on relationships. .

“I think the pandemic has made more people realize that it is okay to slow down. You don’t have to be on the move all the time, ”Mongoven said.

Joanna Chiu

Joanna Chiu is a Vancouver-based reporter covering both Canada-China relations and West Coast news for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu

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