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Long lunches and a 35-hour working week: do French women have the perfect work-life balance?

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They’re famed for long lunches and never staying in the office late – they even have four days off when they get married. But would working French-style help or hinder your career? Stylist investigates

Words: Lizzie Pook
Illustration: Malika Favre

Be completely honest now, no matter how dull and run-of-the-mill it may seem – what did you really do on your last lunch break? Chances are, it wasn’t particularly exhilarating and probably involved a floppy sandwich and some sort of highlighter pen frenzy at your desk (or, if you’re feeling less under the cosh, a scroll through the sidebar of shame). While we might have grand intentions to go for a leisurely stroll or dash to a spin class to clear the work fug from our heads over lunch, in reality we are more likely to shovel salad into our face while keeping one hand on the keyboard and one ear to the council tax man on the phone. Lunch breaks, we Brits simply do not do well.

If you were in France, however, that picture might look rather different. Perhaps you might have a restful hour and a half away from your work station to meet friends at a restaurant. You may have caught up on a book while you tucked into sea bass and greens at the plush work canteen. Whatever it was, you probably weren’t in a sweaty rush and you probably didn’t get crumbs stuck behind the return key.

A recent study, carried out by French corporate services company Edenred, showed that the French take the longest to eat their lunch out of the 14 countries surveyed (including Britain and America). They found that 43% of French people spend over 45 minutes away from their desks each day (compared to the majority of us in the UK who take less than half an hour. Sigh). Across the Channel, it seems, taking your sweet time over your midday meal is a sacred thing. “We often meet at lunchtime for an hour and a half or two hours,” says Audrey Diwan, editor-at-large of Stylist France. “Breaks are good for productivity and maintaining friendships.”

And this is just one example of how French women are leading the charge when it comes to work-life balance. We’ve all read about long holidays, short working weeks and supposed laws that stipulate you can’t send a work email after 6pm (just imagine). But how much of it is fact? How much of it is fiction? And how can we get a little l’équilibre travail-vie privée in our own routines without compromising our careers?

“One of the positive things I’ve noticed about French working culture is that even when things are busy and people are putting in the hours, you still have a life,” says Louise Preston, 31, who’s spending a year working in Paris as head of curriculum development at a small start-up. “We work in a high-paced environment but my colleagues still all play sports, go to the cinema, eat out or visit art galleries during the week. Life isn’t just about work, and even if you finish late, you still make the effort to do something, like head to a late-night exhibition. There’s a real value to spending spare time wisely and I just don’t think that exists to the same extent in the UK.”

Tuck in – slowly

So is the legendary French lunch break at the heart of this attitude that life does go on outside of the office? “I was really surprised during my first few days in the UK,” says Joséphine Roux, 28, who is on secondment from France as marketing communication officer at BNP Paribas’ Bristol office. “In France, it is traditional to have a full hour eating with your workmates, spending time with your boss or talking about things other than work,” she says. “That hardly ever happened in the UK.”

Journalist Frances Robinson, who used to live and work as a translator in Paris, agrees that the French take much greater care over their lunchtime arrangements. “Bigger French companies often have fantastic workplace canteens – I was in one the other week and had a lovely skate wing with butter and caper sauce. Leaving your desk and eating properly is built into your day. I think it’s because the French just have a healthier approach to food generally.”

No emails after 6pm please, I’m French

No emails after 6pm please, I’m French

Ah yes, the French and their love of haute cuisine – probably the reason why most work lunches include a starter, main, cheese course and dessert (rather than a BLT and a packet of Monster Munch). It’s worth noting these office lunches are also subsidised – workers receive tickets restaurants, vouchers for around €8-10 per day, which can be spent in the canteen or at nearby restaurants, positively encouraging employees to leave the office. So there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Thibaut de Saint Pol, sociologist at the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan, believes the French don’t consider lunch as “a moment to refuel”, as perhaps we might do in the UK. “Eating is not only to give us energy, but even more than this, [it is] a moment where our identity is formed by what we eat, how we eat and who we eat with.”

The fabled 35-hour week

But it’s not just food that gives the French a kinder work-life balance than us harried Brits. Much can be said for the country’s 35-hour working week (the shortest in Europe), as Bob Hancké, associate professor of political economy at London School of Economics and Political Science explains. “France’s working week is officially limited to 35 hours. But local trade unions can negotiate arrangements that deviate, as long as the average annual working time is 35 hours,” he says. “What’s worked above that is in principle overtime and paid as such (usually at 100% extra). The country has also signed up to the EU Working Time Directive, which limits weekly working time to 48 hours, whereas the UK did not (and post-Brexit, won’t be doing so). In fact, the UK has no legal limit on working hours, besides what is implied by existing health and safety legislation (stipulating that if accidents occur that are related to overworked employees, employers are liable).” France, meanwhile, mandates 11 consecutive hours of rest between each working day and one consecutive 35-hour period of rest per week, usually a weekend.

“I think France is more attached to workers’ rights and benefits than the UK, and their expectation of what constitutes acceptable working conditions is far stricter,” says Emma Beddington, author of We’ll Always Have Paris, who used to live in the French capital. “The introduction of the 35-hour working week has, in practical terms, meant people get more holiday (RTTs, or jours de réduction du temps de travail), because any overtime you do, you are allowed to take as lieu the following month.” Frances Robinson recalls: “I typically did about 40 hours a week, so I’d get the equivalent overtime off the following month. That was one or two extra days, every month, on top of my annual leave.”

It’s no surprise, then, that research carried out by totaljobs.com has found that British workers suffer more stress and feel less able to deal with their workloads than the French. According to the 2014 research, only 13% of UK employees reported feeling no stress and “on top of their workload”. The French were among the least stressed, with 64% of employees reporting that they felt no stress at all at work and had no problem handling their workloads.

There are also plenty of other perks that set the French apart from weary workers here in the UK. For a start, your boss is legally required to give you four days off when you get married (obviously no such law exists here in the UK, otherwise wedding favour arranging would be a lot less stressful). French workers are also entitled to two days off following the death of a partner or child – you may get these in the UK but there is no legal framework to ensure you are entitled to it; compassionate leave is entirely at the employer’s discretion. There is also often something called a ‘13th month bonus clause’ written into French contracts that means – because there are 13 lots of four weeks in a year, but only 12 months – some workers get double pay at Christmas. Talk about a Christmas miracle.

It doesn’t stop there. In addition to this, any company operating in France has to pay up to 50% of its workers’ monthly public transport costs – while each month the average UK employee spends £148 getting to and from work. The French law used to be subject to exemptions but now applies to all workers who have a monthly pass to the bus, metro, train or tram. Women are also guaranteed 16 weeks’ fully paid maternity leave [in the UK, the first six weeks are paid at 90%], and new dads are entitled to 11 consecutive days off, and an extra seven days if it’s twins (or more). Félicitations!

What is perhaps most envy- inducing, though, are les cheques vacances – yearly holiday vouchers provided by the government that mean you can contribute around €150/250 annually (depending on your salary) to receive €600 to spend on hotels or travel in France or the EU.

Go on, enjoy your long lunch break – just don’t forget to feed the dog

Go on, enjoy your long lunch break – just don’t forget to feed the dog

But as for the ‘no emails after 6pm’ rumour – which made headlines earlier this year when employers’ federations and unions signed a legally binding labour agreement requiring employers to make sure staff ‘disconnect’ outside of working hours – the (sad) reality is there’s little weight behind it. “It’s all a bit silly,” says Beddington. “As it only applies to certain industries, just 250,000 workers are actually affected (out of a workforce of almost three million) in a handful of sectors such as consulting, engineering and IT [although that does include the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC]. And what the agreement actually states is that employees can’t get into trouble for not looking at emails after 6pm. They aren’t forbidden to read and send them. But even so, it’s a statement of principle about the importance of workers’ wellbeing that you probably wouldn’t see elsewhere.”

Money matters

So what effect have all of these benefits had on the French workforce? Have long lunch breaks and shorter legislated working weeks left the them languishing at the bottom of the economic pool when it comes to productivity? Well, no. “Labour productivity in France is actually significantly higher than in the UK,” says Hancké. “If we put the USA at 100 (the usual benchmark that economists use in this type of comparison), France is at about 125-130 and the UK is about 80-85. France, you could say, has chosen to work harder and smarter, and redistribute the resulting gains through leisure.”

But it’s certainly not all champagne lunches and early finishes. “The clichés are definitely exaggerated,” says Beddington. “Working in management in the private sector in France is much the same as it is in any first world country, and people work long and hard hours (you can ‘opt out’ of the 35-hour week to some extent). There are plenty of Parisians working punishing hours, particularly in law, banking and consulting, just as there are in London.” Aicha Demarest, 46, a managing director for a shipping company in Le Havre, Normandy, agrees. “I don’t think I have a great work-life balance,” she says. “Nowadays, I have to be very present in my office, very efficient and reactive. Even at home I look at my emails and feel the pressure to respond quickly. But while I stay late, most of my team leave on time. Even so, I always take an hour and 45 minutes for lunch. It’s so important. I enjoy those moments and don’t want to rush them.”

So while it may not be perfect – it seems there’s no escaping presenteeism or the anxiety of a deadline hurtling towards you wherever you live – perhaps we should try and be un petit peu more French when it comes to our working day. “It’s not that the French office is some earthly paradise,” says Robinson, “There are terrible bosses, office politics, sexual harassment and all the bad things we have here, too. But in terms of working hours, they are simply more sensible than the UK.” And there lies the vast difference. It’s basic, but extremely effective – kinder working hours translate into a less stressed, more productive, happier workforce. So perhaps we should keep our heads screwed on when it comes to our working day too. Now go and take a break – the French woman inside you simply demands it.


How to be more French at work

At a special Life Lessons event, hosted live at Château de Stylist, style blogger Freddie Harrel and Audrey Diwan, editor-at-large of Stylist France, shared their tips on how to be more French at work

Freddie Harrel

Freddie

Freddie Harrel is a blogger, stylist, confidence consultant and founder of She Unleashed ‘self-exploration’ workshops (freddieharrel.com)

Be happy

“Growing up, I was quite shy and insecure. But I have always been resilient and I think that’s probably because I am French. Like most French women, if I am not happy, I will let you know about it. It’s ingrained in us (why do you think we strike so much?). I have worked in all sorts of industries – banking, writing, fashion – but I have never stayed in a job for more than a year until now. If you’re not happy, you have to go. You should regularly ask yourself, ‘Am I happy?’ ‘Is this really me?’ It’s all about unpicking a situation, asking if you are happy, and if not, demanding change.”

Balance your day

“Make the most of little breaks at work and see them as a chance to laugh or bond with your colleagues. In France you’ll often see women crowded around the vending machine or gossiping away over a cup of coffee. It’s important to factor these moments of light relief into your day as it makes the working environment more fun to have that sort of banter with your colleagues.”

Sing your own praises

“Shout about your achievements, because they can actually encourage and inspire other people in the workplace. There’s plenty of space in this world for people to talk themselves up – I think we worry about seeming arrogant when we give ourselves public praise, but we would never think that about others if we saw them doing it. Don’t be afraid to share things you are proud of. What’s the worst that can happen?”


Audrey Diwan

Audrey Diwan

As well as being editor-at-large of Stylist France, Audrey Diwan is a screenwriter, director and co-author of the best-selling How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are (£16.99, Ebury Press)

Don’t be afraid to get political

“In France we are brought up with a lot of literature in the home. We love to discuss politics around the dinner table – we are always up for a debate. And I think that translates into the workplace. We are very impassioned people, we find it quite easy to talk about what we believe in. Our meetings are always very animated.”

Master the art of juggling

“I am very organised and have taught myself how to skip between tasks. I think if you spend more than an hour on any one thing, it can be quite detrimental as you start to run out of ideas and creativity. So it’s all about juggling. If you switch tasks, and then return to the original job a bit later, you’ll find ideas flooding in from other parts of your brain that have had a bit of a rest. It’s actually more efficient, as it makes you work quicker.”

Make time for your lunch

“Taking breaks is not only good for productivity, it’s also about building and maintaining friendships – that’s crucial for French women. We often meet at lunchtime – for an hour and a half or two hours – and it’s really when we do our most important business. If you have to stay a bit late at work in the evening, it’s OK, because you’ve already done a key part of your socialising in the middle of the day.”

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