North Americans might want to take a lesson from Europe when it comes to workloads

This month I will have the pleasure of attending a Network World editors’ and publishers’ conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Aside from meeting with colleagues from the various Network World publications throughout the world, and apart from slipping into the odd museum when the chance arises, I’m looking forward to comparing the European pace of life with that of North America.

Being caught up in the economic juggernaut that is the North American economy, it’s sometimes easy to forget that societies in other parts of the world do things differently. While our workdays become ever more extended, in part due to advances in mobile technologies and the rise of the Internet, professional workers in countries such as Germany enjoy standard annual vacation allotments of six weeks and a host of other workplace perks that are unheard of in this part of the world.

It’s not hard to realize why the U.S. economy has managed to attain it’s level of dominance on the world stage. A huge workforce and a diversified set of natural resources are two obvious reasons. Another one which might not be so obvious is the sheer number of hours each contributor to that workforce puts in to the overall effort.

Whether we realize it or not, many of us are putting in more and more time to “get the job done.” We check our e-mail via our mobile phones while on coffee breaks, we fire up the laptop at 10 o’clock at night to put the finishing touch on a report, or we check voice mails while waiting in airports.

The result is that these little duties pile up and encroach on time that used to be spent on other things, such as spending time with family and friends. At a recent day-long press briefing that I attended, journalists and analysts were given intermittent breaks in between hearing about the company that was hosting the event. During these respites, I was amazed at how many of these people immediately popped open their cell phones to catch up on the two hours of activity back at the office that they had missed.

It’s often hard to resist the temptations that technology offers us. Cell phones and pagers and personal digital assistants are never far from our grasp. It’s easy to say, “I’ll just check my e-mail, it’ll only take a minute,” but what happens when you want to respond to a message or two? There’s another ten minutes eaten up, and so is the break you were supposed to be taking from your work.

The results of such addictions are becoming increasingly obvious. How often do you turn on the news without hearing a report on how stressed out today’s white-collar worker has become? Observers of social trends predict that increasingly stressful lives will lead to broken families and a rise in many types of mental illnesses, among other things.

Like these downsides, the upsides to a super-charged economy are clearly visible. More activity means more jobs, more spending, more tax dollars collected by the government, and, on paper at least, more spending on health care, highways, provincial parks…all the things that make North America a desirable part of the world in which to live.

Unfortunately, the upsides are more recognizable than the downsides. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new hospital wing stands a good chance of making your daily newspaper’s front page; the story of Joe Workaholic who lost touch with his family and is now a divorced alcoholic does not.

Our society must ensure that it maintains a balance of prosperous economic conditions and an ability to let its workers truly enjoy the benefits of those conditions. A dash of the European mentality would help us immensely.