By Melissa J. Anderson

Recently the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its Your Better Life Index, a report which ranks the OECD’s 34 member countries on a number of topics, including work life balance.

According to the OECD, work life balance per country can be measured by comparing the percentage of workers in a country working more than 50 hours a week, the amount of time spent on “leisure and personal care” per day (including sleeping, eating, hobbies, etc), and the rate of employment of mothers.

The organization explains:

“This [work life balance] is a challenge to governments because if parents cannot achieve their desired work/life balance, not only is their welfare lowered but so is development in the country. If parents have to choose between earning money and looking after their children, the result is that there will be too few babies and too little employment.”

The OECD’s concept of work life balance is mainly focused on the well-being of children and ability of parents to be productive. It does take productivity and worker happiness into account, but not as a strong focus. Nevertheless, the measure is an interesting way to see how different countries allocate resources to family-related issues as they pertain to workers.

Different Priorities

Following the economic downturn, the rates of work life balance in different countries has reflected  changes in the allocation of resources to citizens for parental or family issues. For example, the 17th country on the OECD list in terms of work life balance was Great Britain. The report explained how cuts in child welfare funds have degraded work life balance for Brits. It says:

“Before the financial crisis, and during a period of increased investment (1995 to 2005), child poverty in the UK fell more than in any other OECD country (in 2005 it was 10.5%, down from 17.4% in 1995, compared to an OECD average of 12.7%); in the same period the growth in average family income was third highest in the OECD.

“Today, spending cuts, such as cutting benefits for pregnancy and childbirth, and a freeze on child cash benefits, will affect many families. Progress in child poverty reduction in the UK has stalled, and is now predicted to increase; social protection spending on families therefore needs to be protected. Providing services such as affordable and good quality local day-care centres, with flexible opening hours, is key to helping families with children on low-incomes into work.”

The UK has enacted a child welfare program to provide care for the most disadvantaged children, enabling parents to work more, but there is little help for middle class parents who do not qualify for free childcare. This could impact the number of parents working in Britain, as child care may be too expensive for both parents to work.

Similarly, the US approach to parental leave is not as tied to public welfare as it is in many other countries. The OECD explains that in the US, the government is largely hands-off when it comes to parental leave, leaving it in the hands of employers. The report explains, “US family well-being is strongly linked to employment because a significant proportion of public family support is delivered via tax breaks and credits (45% of total compared to 10% on average in the OECD).”

But, the report suggests, this method is beginning to fail American women. It continues,

“Nevertheless female employment in the US has been falling for the last decade, albeit from high levels. This fall is happening despite US women having better career prospects compared to most other OECD countries (35% of management jobs occupied by women) and lower career costs associated with child-rearing (where mothers earn over 80% of non-mothers’ earnings over a working life).”

The hands-off approach seems to be driving women out of the workforce, despite a friendlier attitude toward female advancement and a lower pay gap between mothers and non-mothers.

While the report mainly discusses national approaches to work life balance and parental policy, companies should take note. By working to provide better benefits than the average in a national context, they can better attract and retain the high performing workers who are in demand, and seeking attractive benefits.