europe and usaI wanted to touch upon a big topic that always comes up in my conversations.  People often mention that working in Europe is more relaxed, easy going, etc.  This also comes along with questions like, “How do we get any work done?”  Especially for me as a Spaniard, people assume I’m taking siestas all day long and I’m up until 4 in the morning.  Which is only true about 75% of the time.  Joking!

The European style of work ethic focuses on a different paradigm than the American one.  Most American companies, at least the corporate ones believe in working long hours to achieve the results your looking for.  This definitely holds its merits, but at what cost?  Are we working our employees so hard that they lose their health and happiness?

I’d like to share with you my personal experience in a couple of topics related to these questions.

More Vacations = More Productivity

vacationSounds crazy.  I agree.  How can a person-A perform better than person-B, when person-B works 50% more?  What I’ve found, in my case, is that taking a nice relaxing vacation or spending more quality time with my family leaves me refreshed and rejuvenated.  When I’m happier and more fulfilled, I work harder and have a more pleasant time doing it.

In addition, breaking up the monotony keeps things fresh.  When I was working as a secretary, tax season used to drive me insane just because of all the data entry.

What do experts say?  In this article, a study mentions that on average European countries have 10 more vacation days than in the US, yet are still toe-to-toe in terms of productivity.

The Importance of Ergonomics

When I first entered the work force, I was just out of uni.  I was 21 years old, healthy and ready to start my career.  I was invincible.  I had the opportunity to work with an engineering firm in the UK where they flew me out and I jumped right into working a 40 hour week.

The honeymoon period didn’t last that long, as soon as my back started acting up.  I thought my body wasn’t used to sitting all day long, which it wasn’t, however the problem actually was: I wasnt sitting correctly.  It was only when I learned about ergonomics (check out Modeets to learn more) when I realized just how unmindful I was being towards my back, my posture and ultimately my health.  Changing my sitting habits allowed me to get rid of the back pain and live much more comfortably. I’m still grateful to my friend who recommended I change my habits towards sitting.  Read below about how I encouraged an initiative to educate the whole office in ergonomics.

My first ergonomic chair was a kneeling chair, and I still use it to this day.  It ‘trained’ me to sit up straight and helped me develop my core muscles involved in sitting properly.  At first it was hard to get used to.  I wasn’t used to putting my shins on a rest.  I was used to sitting in a traditional chair and lazily reclining back.  After I got used to the knee stool, things started to turn around. My posture improved and people noticed.  But best of all, my back pain was gone. I found my chair on the kneeling chair reviews site listed above (Modeets).

A Healthy Back Helps You Work Harder

This also might not click right away.  But the #1 work-related injury world wide is back pain and spinal injury.  And most of these cases don’t involve physical labor jobs.  The common desk job, if not taken with precaution, is almost a sure fire path to back injury.

back painMy previous employer listened to me when I pointed this out to him.  More people were taking sick days due to back pain, and the trends showed that this was relative to how long they were at the company, not just age.  To them, this meant that sadly they’re playing a role in injuring people’s backs.  My boss started encouraging us to sit up straight and even hired an ergonomic expert to come in and give us a training.  It was a great gesture, but the payoff lasted only about 2 weeks.

One of the main health tactics we use in Europe is preventative medicine.  We like to solve the problem before it happens.  My boss decided he would give us the option of refurnishing our workstations on the company’s wallet.  Most of my colleagues ended up getting either a ball chair designed from exercise equipment.  Ball chairs are a new addition to the office that people are finding to be quite effective in helping with posture issues and as a tool to help fix back pain.  They’re also known as yoga chairs since they’re made from yoga balls, which are commonly used for balance training at the gym.

Most of the others who didn’t buy the ball chairs opted for kneeling chairs, listening to my suggestion based upon my experience with the chairs before.  Based on the feedback from my coworkers, these products are great for making sure you keep good posture throughout the day and they’re very comfortable as well.  Many completely switched over to using this kind of chair and even replaced their home office chairs.

They way they work is in the design.  In this type of sitting configuration, there is more space in the angle of the hips.  There’s a wider gap between between the thighs and torso.  In not entirely sure about how this works anatomically, but the effect is that there’s a very noticeable increase in comfort in the lower back.  I suggest trying one out if you suffer from lower back pain.  The top knee stool is the Office Star.  It’s really comfortable.  The cushions are made from high quality memory foam, so its really easy on the knees.  This is very important for first time users, as it can take a while to get used to sitting this way at first.  It’s also very well built and offers different settings for the height and the angle. I’m really short, so the boosted height is a necessity for me.  My coworkers all agree that the ergonomic review site KneelingOfficeChairs.com is pretty accurate in its evaluation of this product.

Other people did things like adjusting the height of their monitor using stands, using foot rests, and we even convinced the boss to let us have an optional yoga class for our lunch breaks.

Focus on Happiness and Contentment

I guess you could call me an advocate of self-help.  I’m pretty logical by nature, being a engineer and all, but I recognize that emotions and mood have on productivity and overall health.  Many studies have shown that happiness has a direct effect on our health.

While we can’t really control what kind of workloads are dumped on our desks Monday morning, we can control how we react to it.  We can choose to panic and select the route of stress, or we can choose to be indifferent towards it.  Regardless of the amount of work, it will still get done eventually and most of all we still get to go home at the end of the day to enjoy the things in life that we do work for: family, food, hobbies, etc.

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My personal experience is that with some forethought about how we go about getting our results is going to actually help us achieve better results.  As Franklin Covey said in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people, its not just about production, its about production capability.