Global average working hours have declined since 1950

Average working hours around the world have declined since 1950. Source: Our World in Data.

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Melissa Chan
December 17, 2020 11:14 pm

Working hours are on the decline because companies understand that it’s not just the number of hours that’s important, it’s the number of productive hours. Companies have been trialling different methods to enhance productivity. This can be reducing hours, having an Xbox room in the business premises and giving free coffee. There are so many examples. Personally, I have found that taking a short nap around midday has really helped my productivity in the afternoon.

Making staff work too many hours is counter-productive. As the working week goes on, you can’t concentrate as well, your health may suffer, and your mood will be affected. Definitely not what you need if you work in a team-based environment.

Unilever will be trialling a 4 day working week for its New Zealand employees. The trial will run for a year and the purpose isn’t to shift 5 days’ worth of hours into 4 days, as has been considered in other countries. Instead the length of the working days will be the same as before and employees will be paid for 5 days’ work. If it’s a success, Unilever will extend this policy beyond New Zealand.

For those who support reduced working hours, they say that it also makes employees happier. They have more time for family and their social lives, and can spend more time on out-of-work interest. A happier workforce is a more productive workforce.

Kotaro Shirai
December 20, 2020 1:54 pm

In Japan, working hours is a controversial topic. We want to see the culture of long working hours disappear but tradition is firmly rooted here. Photos of salarymen sleeping in stations and people dozing off in train carriages have gone viral. According to government statistics, we are only taking 50% of the annual leave entitled to us.

We also have a word – karoshi – that refers to people who die because of working too many hours. Friends in other countries are always widen their eyes when they hear of this problem in Japan. Working long hours can be a problem in many countries, but rarely does it go so far as people losing their lives. Our media has publicised several cases of karoshi, explaining that these workers were logging over 100 hours of overtime in their companies. The issue is that there is also culture of fear when taking time off. Japanese bosses can be very strict and often deny leave requests. Although we have holiday leave, it is a cultural norm not to take all of it. Many people take just 1 or 2 days off a year. And this then affects attitudes to working hours. If you don’t take the holiday leave you have, why do you think you can just work regular hours? What happens is that many Japanese work overtime and take very little holiday leave.

Fortunately society is fighting back. The younger generation has grown up with access to foreign cultures due to the internet. They can see that while Japan has a high standard of living, it doesn’t guarantee health and happiness. Many are rejecting decades long traditions and fierce loyalty to companies. We have also had ‘No more karoshi’ protests, and the government has released a list of companies that have violated labor laws, hoping to shame them into treating workers better. It is difficult to break tradition, but things are changing and I believe we are on the right path.

Hussaini Azri
December 19, 2020 2:15 pm

Others here have already said declining working hours are good for wellbeing, but the way working culture has progressed means that there will be resistance to reducing hours further. This resistance won’t necessarily be intentional, but it is a result of social factors within the workplace.

I work in a family business. I have a set number of days that I can take holiday leave and my contract gives me a set number of hours I work per week. I almost always work more hours and never take the full number of leave days that are assigned to me. I know this is something I should do, but I struggle with it. I am relatively junior in the business, but I feel I should be setting an example of hard work. I also feel guilty if I just work regular hours. I don’t want other people in the business thinking I’m taking it easy or I get preferential treatment because I’m part of the family.

Some companies such as Virgin and Netflix have experimented with giving employees unlimited leave. Although the intention is to get people to work less, the unintended consequence is that it makes some people work more. No one wants to be the person seen as taking advantage of company policy. At the most, people will only feel comfortable taking the same amount of leave that they had previously when their holiday amount was set.

In some very fast-paced industries such as finance, tech and consulting, there is a sense that working regular hours and taking leave can ruin your chances of progression. It is the equivalent to showing that you are not as committed as other staff. So working late into the night is the solution. Show your boss and co-workers that you will stay in the office while it’s dark outside and everyone else has gone home.

So in theory it’s good to see that working hours have declined, but practically I feel there will be resistance to reducing hours further. I do hope as society we can stop putting such high expectations on ourselves. I am a perfect example of this. In my situation, I am hoping to communicate my feelings with more people in the business about how I feel added pressure being part of the family. I hope they can understand and encourage me to work the amount I should be working, and not burning myself out all the time 🙂

Murray Hinton
December 18, 2020 5:33 pm

Working hours are getting shorter because we acknowledge the benefits of reduced working times on our happiness and relationships. Companies also benefit from a recharged and motivated workforce. But people are now associating long working hours with status. “Oh, you work a 9 to 5? Those are peasant hours! I work until 9pm every night and most weekends.” You’ll often see subtle competitions between people when discussing their working lives, with each person attempting to one-up the other with how busy they are.

It’s also become a trend on social media. Influencers are constantly posting about their #hustle and their #grind, working late into the night and making it seem that they’re special for doing so. Some of them claim to get up at 4am in the morning to “earn their sunrise.” This has created a community in which there’s an aspiration to be one of those people who spend every waking hour working on something.

This, of course, is detrimental. We’re human and we need our rest. Not only is it impossible to be productive 24 hours a day, but also a lack of sleep has shown to have negative effects on health, mood and productivity. But saying you work regular hours, and then spending the rest of your time engaging in leisure activity isn’t sexy. It won’t get you the likes and follows. Social media really is an instrument of extremes. There’s little room for the middle ground.

One tech company, FullContact, even has a policy in which it pays employees to go on holiday. The catch is the company will only pay employees if they DON’T check their work emails and phone while they’re away. That’s an extra $7,500 given to employees to really switch off from work. Unsurprisingly, all employees at FullContact who have taken this offer have been able to switch off during their holiday time, and the benefits of doing so are apparent when they return.

Sean Ellis
December 17, 2020 6:17 pm

Working hours on average have declined all over the world, but there are signs of stagnation and even a rise in working hours for some countries. Average working hours in the US declined steadily until 2009, but has seen a slight increase year-on-year since then (Source: Our World In Data). From my experience, US working culture and hours are brutal. You are expected to work 40 hours a week at a minimum as well as taking care of whatever other things you need to. And once you go home, you are expected to stay always reachable and connected and able to do work over the internet for no pay. Oftentimes, companies will have unpaid meetings after work ends so that you have to work extra hours and the company does not have to pay you.

Things get even worse when dealing with people who are just getting into the workforce. You often have to start off at an internship where you work long hours and aren’t paid, but can be expected to move to another city, travel often for work or go to conferences. These unpaid positions also require a high level of experience and even sometimes undergraduate or even graduate degrees.

Also, American companies do not offer very much in the way of vacations. In searching for a job, the best vacations plan I’ve seen is 30 days a year and that is with the military, for leave. It is not uncommon to get somewhere less than 10 days a year for vacation and maybe 5 for sick days. Whether or not these are paid or unpaid depends on the company. Maternity and paternity leave are also big sticking points. Many companies offer maternity leave, but not paid and they do NOT offer paternity leave of any kind (most companies that is).

Camille Lansac
March 20, 2021 11:46 pm

Global working hours have declined, yes. But the endless number of tasks hasn’t declined. This means people feel there is always too much to do while at work. This has opened up a variety of mechanisms by which people attempt to be as productive as possible. Before the pandemic hit, I was part of a Meetup that would meet weekly to get work done. We wouldn’t talk to each other except at the start when we would explain our objectives for the session e.g. I want to complete this report, I want to analyze these figures. Then for the rest of the 2-hour session, we would sit next to each other and just do our own work. It helped having people around working on their stuff. It helped me concentrate and avoid procrastination when others around me were concentrating on their work.

Some businesses have actually commercialized this concept while so many people have been working from home. People pay to have a ‘productivity nanny’ that virtually checks in on them every few hours. People who sign up say it helps them be more accountable. Also if you’re part of a group, you can all be dialled in to the same call on Zoom. Just like with my Meetup experience, you don’t talk to each other, but it just helps to be connected to other people who are also working.

Working hours are declining. This is a good sign. But we’re trying to be productive every minute of each working day, and this isn’t sustainable.

Josef Lind
March 24, 2021 9:55 am

Reduced working hours is a means to an end; the end being a higher quality of life and greater work-life balance. If it means people are overworked and stressed all the time despite working hours being reduced, then it’s just a checkbox exercise. At college, people would take high doses of caffeine and even pills like Adderall to study longer hours. It would give them laser like focus and allow them to study hours at a time.

Friends I went to school with who now work in tech and banking tell some sobering stories. Those who have gone into private equity and banking say there is rampant stimulant abuse. There’s a cocaine addiction problem in Silicon Valley because of the demanding work environment. Some are even micro-dosing LSD. Is that what’s happened to our working culture? We feel the need to take a psychedelic drug just to go to work. If working life is meant to be improving, I’m certainly not seeing or hearing about it.

The dangers of these stimulants and drugs is that there’s a crash. But now you’ve got your feet wet, you deal with the crash by taking another drug – this one will help you manage the crash better. It’s a vicious cycle. Global average working hours are on the decline, but with any average there will be extremes at each end of the bell curve. We have a larger problem that goes beyond working hours. It’s our working culture that demands so much of our effort and time, and often leaves us exhausted in our leisure time.