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Oktoberfest waitress Babsi carries beer mugs during the first day at Munich's 175th Oktoberfest in Munich September 20, 2008. (© Michaela Rehle / Reuters/Michaela Rehle/Reuters)
Oktoberfest waitress Babsi carries beer mugs during the first day at Munich's 175th Oktoberfest in Munich September 20, 2008. (© Michaela Rehle / Reuters/Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

Part 4: Harder worker? No life? Just act more like the Germans Add to ...

What a bunch of whiners we've become. Work is destroying our life, cry the proponents of greater equilibrium, and stress has become the 24/7 routine. Woe is us, responds the oppressed labour force between frantic Facebook postings - we demand in-house corporate pedicures to alleviate our unparalleled suffering.

But maybe it's not as bad as all that. Maybe it's our endless negativity about the work-life balancing act - based on a refusal to see our behaviour as an enlightened personal choice rather than a forced sacrifice of self - that's put the fragile Canadian psyche so pathetically out of whack.

"Don't denigrate work," advises Thomas Hurka, a University of Toronto philosopher and author of the forthcoming book The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters.

Work matters, Prof. Hurka says, much more than its life-loving critics care to acknowledge. "If you ask what are the things that make life worthwhile, one of them is pleasure, satisfaction, feeling good. But another one is achievement. If you have work that is challenging and calls on your abilities, and then you succeed at it, that's worthwhile in itself. So it's a mistake to talk about work versus your life - work is a valuable element in your life."

The dichotomy is false to begin with: Take away too much work and you almost certainly won't be left with enough of a life. By recognizing the pleasure and sense of accomplishment work can provide, we might already feel less conflicted.

Dominique Browning is the author of Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas and Found Happiness, and now writes a blog from her cottage in Little Compton, R.I., in which she extols the wonders of gazing at dragonflies and meditating on Yoko Ono's Wish Tree. So you might expect this pyjama-clad former editor-in-chief of House & Garden to decry the pressures of employment.

Far from it. As much as she counsels readers to slow down and love life, she still covets the invigorating joys of the work ethic. "I've never really believed in a work-life imbalance. There's not a clean break, work time and down time - many of us want to be thinking all the time, not turning it on and off. I like being busy, productive, engaged. I like feeling wanted and needed even when I'm complaining about deadlines."

That's the good kind of work, of course, the kind we'll happily claim as a major part of our identity. Bad work is more problematic for the way it degrades life, and no one should have to submit to cruel bosses, unhealthy conditions or the assembly-line mindlessness critiqued by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

Yet the people doing the loudest complaining aren't working 14-hour days in a Victorian-age sweatshop or spending four hours a day commuting to and from a remote warehouse on inadequate public transit. Instead, we are the pampered middle and upper classes who can't admit we've made this choice - for money, career ambitions, personal identity, the sheer satisfaction of the job, or just an intense longing to get out of the house.

For Ms. Browning, the idea that hard workers are losing out on life is "wrong and superficial. We're in control for the most part and, if you're a young lawyer in the billable-hours business, you work a long day. It's a choice you've made, there are good reasons why you made that choice and, if you can't stand it, then leave."

But along with this workplace tough love, Ms. Browning offers her "slow-love" method of subduing the doubts and anxieties we constantly assume. "It's not our employer's job to find work-life balance for us, it's our job - we have to carve out moments of self-nourishment in an incredibly busy day. These can be tiny things: Instead of sitting at a desk, glued to the computer, eating yogurt, force yourself to get out, go for a walk or to a gallery, if only for 45 minutes."

That's one approach to rectifying a perceived imbalance: figuring out a way to reclaim the long days for yourself. But it doesn't necessarily satisfy those who long to spend more time at home and with their family, who want to mark a clearer separation between their life's work and their life. So what can you do when you feel coerced into giving more hours to your job than is humanly reasonable?

Just act more like the Germans, says Chicago labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, author of Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, and do more with less. Notoriously productive and efficient, Germans nonetheless spend many fewer hours in the workplace than do North Americans. At the political level, they've hammered out union agreements that limit all that life-sapping overtime. But because of those agreements, they also accept the collective understanding that the workplace is designed for actual work. They don't share our compulsion to drag out the day with the distractions many Canadians consider the redeeming side of office servitude: chattering with cubicle mates, surfing the Web, moaning about how late we get home to the kids after a hard day's labour.

"Part of the deal of living in a co-operative society like Germany," Mr. Geoghegan says, "is that you're not going to spend all your time at the office." And when you're out of the office, because you have the time and the energy when you're a German, you keep working hard: You go to the market, cook your family dinners together and clean your own house, instead of relying on the various North American lifestyle-support systems that allow us to work longer hours and live less well.

"We outsource our lives because we don't have time to live them," Mr. Geoghegan notes.

In life, as on the job, hard work can be a pleasure - if only we'd start admitting it.

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