Whilst here in the UK we think of our conventional working week as 9am-5pm between Monday and Friday, many countries take a different approach to the regular working schedule. With work-related stress accounting for 40% of all workplace illness in 2015-16, could the UK benefit from offering a more flexible approach?
One company in the Southwestern Pacific country recently experimented with a four day working week. Staff at trustee company Perpetual Guardian continued to be paid for five days of work, but only worked for four as part of a six week trial set to conclude in mid-April. In July, the company will make a decision on whether to adopt the new working pattern full time.
Both company bosses and employees have noted increased productivity as a result of the trial. New Zealanders currently work an average of 1,752 hours a year – which places them close to the average among OECD countries. Many think tanks and workplace organisations have been calling on more companies to adopt a four day working pattern, suggesting that it could help combat unhealthy work-life balances and lead to a better quality of work being produced in a shorter period of time.
Despite its employees only working an average of 29 hours a week, the small European nation has been the world’s most productive for a number of years. According to 2015 data gathered by the OECD, Luxembourgers have a GDP per hour worked (a measure which evaluates how effectively labour input is used in the production process and combined with other factors) of US$93.40.
The OECD has attributed the nation’s success to its belief in maintaining the work-life balance of employees based there, and its success in allowing them to ‘successfully combine work, family commitments and personal life’. Luxembourgers are generally allowed to reorganise their working weeks to accommodate outside commitments and interests – most workers are entitled to at least five weeks and all overtime must be compensated for. As well as this flexible approach, many sectors do not allow work on Sundays.
The North American nation was recorded as the least productive on the OECD’s 2015 list. Compared to Luxembourg’s short and flexible work week, Mexico has the world’s longest working week on average at 41 hours.
With a GDP per hour of just US$20.30, Mexico’s case shows that a long and fixed working schedule could perhaps do more harm than good, despite appearing productive.
The Asian country currently has a 68-hour working week – a product of the country’s economic boom during the 1980s and 1990s, when a ‘workaholic’ attitude took hold and the country’s birth rate fell sharply. After new President Moon Jae-in took office, the country’s national assembly passed a law (which will come into effect in July) to cut maximum weekly working hours from 68 to 53. The country’s minimum wage will also be increased by 16% this year.
When it comes into force, the new working week will consist of 40 normal hours and up to 12 hours of overtime. It will initially apply to large companies, before being phased in for smaller businesses. A study by the Korean Economic Research Institute estimates that it will cost an additional $11bn to maintain the same levels of production as under the old working pattern.
The country’s Gender and Equality and Family Minister, Chung Hyun-back, has described the old week as ‘inhumanely long’ and damaging to the country’s fast-aging population. However, South Koreans still work around 400 more hours each year than workers in the UK and Australia, despite all countries having similar average incomes.
Whilst all the countries above are members of the OECD, developing economies such as China and India are not members of the organisation, and often have much longer weekly working hours. Some companies in India still operate on a six-day working week, resulting in many employees being contracted to work Saturdays on a regular basis. In a survey of millennials conducted by ManpowerGroup, young Indians were found to work 52 hours a week on average – much more than their peers in 25 other countries. The average for China was next highest, at 48 hours.
According to a study conducted by the International Labor Organisation in 2011, productivity can drop dramatically after 40 hours of work a week, and doing so over a prolonged period can cause strain and fatigue. Despite this, many Indian workers still put in long hours, as showing commitment is seen as a way of progressing.
While the working week in the US is 40 hours on average, employees often find themselves putting in many more hours than what is stipulated on their contracts. A Gallup poll conducted for Forbes Magazine in 2015 found that those employed on full time contracts normally work nearer to 47 hours a week on average. Many also worked even longer hours than the average – 21% of those polled said that they worked 50-59 hours a week, and 18% said that they worked over 60 hours each week.