Differences Between Work-Life Balance In Eastern And Western Cultures

When it comes to work-life balance, Asian and Western cultures usually have different ways of discovering it.

For many years in Australia, I’ve juggled working a day job, chasing a writing career and making time for things on the personal and home front. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got too many things work and play-wise to do.

Work to play or play to work. Or both | Weekly Photo Challenge: Experimental.

Work to play or play to work. Or both | Weekly Photo Challenge: Experimental.

Finding a work-life balance is arguably about juggling needs and wants. According to Safework SA, work life balance is ‘the relationship between your work and the commitments in the rest of your life, and how they impact on one another’. Finding a work-life balance often means organising time for things you want to do, and have to do whether you like it or not because it may impact the former and vice-versa – and trying to discover that ever elusive feeling called satisfaction all round.

There’s no definitive means to measure the ideal work-life balance. Each of us has different priorities. At different points in our lives we’ll have different priorities. Each of us will live out the notion of work-life balance differently at different times in different parts of the world among different cultures.

In Asian cultures, there seems to be a strong focus on working to make a living. It’s not uncommon to hear of longer working hours in the corporate world in Asia compared to the Western world. In 2016, UK-based B2B marketplace Expert Market looked at 71 city hubs around the world: those in the 10 lowest work-life balance cities (Dubai, Bangkok, Hong Kong) work over 2,000 hours per year in the office, whereas those in the top 10 cities which are all European cities work around 1,600 hours per year.

Similarly, not-for-profit organisation Catalyst surveyed 1,834 multinational female and male employees across South-East Asia and found 64% of them stressed the importance of furthering fledging careers. Commonly among Asian cultures, working hard to attain job security and earning one’s own stripes – by showing up and doing the work – are markers of professional achievement, pride and status.

The more hours one works on the job to earn a living, the more one might be labelled a workaholic. Growing up in Singapore, I watched my dad come home late from the office most nights and work Saturdays – it’s all part of the job, he always said.

Some of us work hard for what we want.

Some of us work hard for what we want.

Consequently, some Asians typically lean towards upholding a hardworking ethic and getting things done – perhaps getting things done as soon as possible too. Conversely, Westerners are commonly regarded as more relaxed, just like how many Australians are regarded as laid-back. Today in parts of modern Spain, Italy and Mexico, siestas or naps in the middle of work are still common, which is usually unheard of in Asian cities. This is not to say other ethnic groups don’t care about working hard; to be hired for any job, you have to do that job to stay hired. However, you can work hard and work smart, and still get the job done. That is, you can work your way to the top, or play your way to the top. Or both.

Doing things now is my motto. If it’s possible, I’ll get things done right now, ASAP, way ahead before deadlines at work. To me, this is a good use of time: show up to work, finish things now, move on to something else at work or go home.

In Western cultures there seems to be more of a focus on looking after one’s health and well-being on the job. While sick leave entitlement is the norm (in most corporate full-time jobs) across the world, it’s those in the Western world who are more likely to use it. A study by PwC shows Australians take the most ‘sickies’ a year at 10 days (some using these days for non-legitimate reasons), with those in the UK taking an average of 9.1 sick days and in Asia 2.2 days.

Then there is also personal, maternity and compassionate kinds of leave (varying across the world), and many of us take them when we have to. No matter who we are, sometimes we work because we have and want to. But sometimes we simply can’t because other parts of life calls with stronger conviction.

Some of us prefer to take life easy.

Some of us prefer to take life easy.

The Western world seems more enthusiastic about taking time off work to enjoy doing what they want. Office workers in New York, Sydney, Moscow and Helsinki take more than 25 days of vacation days on average a year, while 15 vacation days is more common in Jakarta, Taipei, China and Bangkok. That said, roughly 61% of Americans work on vacation and 81% high paying finance professionals in Singapore prefer staying contactable while on leave. Perhaps more of us are workaholics more than we like to admit.

Notably, how much annual leave one gets to take at a stretch depends on individual job requirements and whether it’s peak period in the industry one works in. Some of us might work multiple jobs or do shift work, for instance work in a café by day and club by night – which might mean keeping both jobs to make ends meet may be more important than taking an extended vacation.

At one point in my life, I worked contract and casual jobs. These kinds of jobs didn’t come with leave entitlements but once I finished up a contract, there was time before the next one. One could call this my ‘gap years’, which is usually defined as taking a break in between studies; it’s something many Australians like to do.

*  *  *

Not everyone fits the stereotype. How hard one decides to work or play depends on what they want out of life. For instance, today many employees in Singapore value work-life balance more: millennials here want to travel and spend weekends doing non-work activities. On the other hand, these days more and more Australians work overtime and more prefer payment over time in lieu – finding it harder to achieve a work-life balance.

Balance is an elusive illusion.

Balance is an elusive illusion.

Most of the time we need reasons to live ‘life’ if we were to get away from the fair bit of hours we put in in the office. We might work certain hours or days so we can care for someone. Or study to better our skills on the job or elsewhere. Or take part in cultural occasions. What might be ‘work’ to someone might not be ‘work’ to others, and the same thing can be said about ‘life’.

However the line between work and play can be a fine one, especially when it comes to doing something you love for a living. Work can be play and play can be work. For some this might be the ideal life: work at something you love, feel productive with a sense of purpose and feel good about yourself. We could be a full-time freelancer working odd hours making a living from stimulating passion projects. Or an entrepreneur who built their booming business passionately from the ground up. Or we could work in a corporate office job that we simply love and don’t mind taking work home after hours.

On the other hand, some of us might prefer work and play to be distinct: show up to a routine day job we might have half a heart for, turn up to practice passion elsewhere after hours. Two different worlds, two different worlds to learn from whether we like them or not.

Life is a series of ups and downs, of different chapters and moments.

Life is a series of ups and downs, of different chapters and moments.

The notion of ‘balance’ is subjective. The Oxford Dictionary defines balance as a ‘situation where elements are in harmonious proportion, and presence of mental and emotional stability’. However, nothing is perfect and so ‘balance’ is arguably an elusive illusion, and so is satisfaction too as we go after the shadow of perfection. Entrepreneur William Vanderbloemen suggests our life happens in seasons, in work-life rhythms. Some moments will be better than others. Almost anything that we do work or play-wise might turn out how we never imagined. As author Alain de Botton said:

‘There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.’

Work hard. Play hard. Live the best of both worlds.

Work hard. Play hard. Live the best of both worlds.

At different times of our lives, we’ll have different priorities, different definitions of success and so different wants and needs. At different times of our lives we’ll have different approaches to work and play – perhaps work to work, work to play, play to play, or play to work.

There’s meaning in everything you do if you commit to it, work or play, like it or not.

Do you juggle work and play well?


221 thoughts on “Differences Between Work-Life Balance In Eastern And Western Cultures

  1. Why yes I do! Thank you so much for writing this post. It is helpful. I share your early ambition to be a radio host! I love the ways we have walked on the same path. I like the hopeful quote ” ‘What might be ‘work’ to someone might not be ‘work’ to others, and the same thing can be said about ‘life’. ” but I see there are two ways of looking at it.. you can do a proper job and then look forward to doing your writing or you can use your passion to do work you love and embrace the struggle that comes with it. and maybe hop between the both. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas x


    • I will always remember my time in community radio fondly… and I am guessing you will too 😉 There’s just something very intimate and personal about working in radio, which I might share more of at some point.

      I agree. Maybe we can hop between both work and passion, or do one or the other. The choice is ours and either way, often we can’t have our cake and eat it. It isn’t always a bad thing and in the end, we will probably learn to appreciate what we have.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Work-life balance, however elusive it might sound, has become my priority since the last few years. As you said, in Asian culture those who work hard and long hours are often perceived to be better than those who leave the office on time. The problem is, as I can attest based on my experience, many people spend their time at work inefficiently. They have unnecessarily long meetings, work in the way that often takes too much time, and so on. And in the past I often found myself trapped in such situations.

    I came across some articles that helped me to be more brave to speak up my mind, about how one’s contribution at work shouldn’t be measured by how long he/she works, but how efficient he/she finishes all the tasks given to him/her. Sometimes I wonder why not many people take the Nordic model as an example. I read that in Denmark people are trusted to do a good job so they can leave the office on time. Those who stay longer for no reason are often frowned upon for everyone else has friends, family, pets, or hobbies to look forward to being engaged with after work.


    • Working inefficiency is something that happens, definitely agree with you on that one. At many workplaces I’ve been, I’ve seen many a long meeting…and you wonder if it’s all talk, no action quite often.

      Good on you for speaking up your mind, Bama. Hope that has worked in your favour and maybe even open up opportunities 🙂 The Nordic model of work sounds like an interesting one. Work and play can compliment each other, so it’s important to make time for both.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well said and I couldn’t agree more on your points. Somehow Asians seem to need to work themselves like a bull, its like if the work is not hard and suffering then it is not work and the salary is not hard earned money.


    • Such a good point in that some feel if the work isn’t hard and stressful, it is not actually work. Work comes in different forms and any kind of job is a job, a part to play. If one of us thinks a job is too easy or too boring or gives you time to enjoy a life outside of work, they can look elsewhere – but it might also be worthwhile to remember that it is also an important job at the end of the day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello Mabel, going through your posts, I realise what a wonderful blogger you are. I will be following your blogs closely and commit myself as an ardent follower of yours. I am not sure if you see this as you have several followers commenting. If you see, please say a 👋


Share your thoughts. Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.