We built LeavePlanner to work internationally, with provision for different holiday entitlements, maternity leave allocations and so on. In the process of fine-tuning, we’ve had plenty of time to observe the way that work cultures follow country boundaries. Some of the differences we’ve noticed have obviously arisen in response to legislation, but others seem to be matters of national character.
The starting point for any discussion of working hours is to register how extreme those national variations can be. A recent survey by CTM business insurance found that Danes clocked up around 26 hours weekly, and the people of Mexico recorded 41. Yep, for every two hours worked by the Danes, the Mexicans work three…
Now, the obvious response to statistics on the Mexican/Danish divide would be to point out that this is a comparison of apples with oranges. Surely, we’d expect to see much greater consistency across EU member states? But the extent of European variation turns out to be almost as great as that across the wider world. Sub 30-hour work weeks are common in western Europe, but Romanians report 40.5 hour stints and Bulgarians 40.4. Indeed, those hard-working Easterners collectively raise the EU average to 37 hours!
At this point in the discussion, armchair economists are likely to weigh in with observations about productivity. Workers in G7 nations like the UK tend to consider themselves as more productive than their counterparts in the rest of the world because of the higher value of the goods and services they produce. And, indeed, most of us would agree that the average Dane enjoys a better standard of living than the average Mexican.
However, while productivity indices are all very well, they can’t account for all those European differences. For example, we can see how efficient working practices enable economic powerhouse Germany to get by on a 27-hour working week…but what powers Iceland’s leisurely 27.9 hours, given the scale of the economic crunch it endured a few years back?
One explanation for those differences is that provided by broader societal issues. If we adopt the perspective of Heritage.org’s index of economic freedom, we might find it significant that the nations of western Europe bask in the ‘Mostly Free’ category, while those further east are generally ranked as ‘Moderately Free’.
Proponents of market thinking argue that, because citizens of western Europe enjoy maximum freedom in deciding where to invest their hard-earned cash, they can optimise their returns. The result is that they work fewer hours…simply because they don’t need to work more!
Against Long Hours
Well, the economic arguments are unending. But, regardless of such considerations, it remains the case that long hours are bad for business.
Study after study has shown that, when a company promotes a culture of extended work hours, it tends to suffer for it. Burnout will make your employees less efficient, besides generating ill-will. Regardless of what country they’re operating in, the mantra of the HR manager should always be the same: “Haven’t you got a home to go to?”