In the summer of 2017 an alliance of businesses and activists in the Spanish region of Catalonia voted for a shorter working week. Spain is somewhat notorious for its unusual working hours, which can see workers start at 9 in the morning and not leave until 8 or even 9 at night.
This vote was only one step towards changing the Spanish working week, but if it goes ahead it would put Catalonia closer to the ‘regular’ 9 to 5.
On average, Spaniards are at work for more time each week than UK citizens (37.7 hours compared to 36.6), but there are countries where a normal working week is far shorter.
Statisticians are increasingly taking notice of international discrepancies in work/life balance, as well as how productive we actually are during the time we’re at work.
If you’re hoping to advance your career with a spell overseas, the length of the working week you can expect to encounter may also have an impact on which country you choose to move to.
So which countries offer the shortest working weeks?
Starting off just across the Channel, France is somewhat notorious for its ‘lax’ working week, which is technically limited to 35 hours.
The ‘35 hour week’ was implemented in 2000 as a way of increasing quality of life and boosting employment.
There is a major caveat to this system, however; 35 hours are not the maximum permitted hours per week. Instead, this is the threshold at which overtime begins; this explains why France’s 2016 average weekly hours worked were 37.3, instead of being capped at 35.
While workers can and do go into the overtime bracket, they are still protected by a separation of work and home, with a recent law preventing time at home being plagued with work messages.
When he was campaigning to become President, Emmanuel Macron did not explicitly target the 35 hour week, instead seeking to put more power in the hands of employers to change working hours.
Now that the Macron government is up and running, efforts are being made to regulate the jobs market. If Macron does end up changing the 35 hour week as part of his plans, we may see average working hours increase. Given Macron’s balanced centrist stance, however, this could be accompanied by increased average earnings.
Germany is another European nation with enviably low average working hours; 2016’s typical working week was just 35.1 hours.
Germany also has the Kurzarbeit policy (which affects part-time pay) in place.
Under the generous Kurzarbeit plan, German workers are paid around 80% of their normal wage to work part time, known as ‘short work’.
Given how high the ‘reduced’ income is, this policy has proven extremely popular as it cuts stress and encourages workers to gain new skills in their free time.
The scheme has worked wonders for German unemployment, with the jobless rate progressively reducing since the late 2000’s financial crisis.
There has inevitably been some criticism of the short work scheme, but with unemployment low and job satisfaction high, there is a compelling argument for the German way of working.
Undercutting Germany on average hours worked, Switzerland came in even lower in 2016 at 34.7.
The Swiss secret to a low average working week is similar to Germany’s, with many employees taking on a part-time week. According to some estimates, this may be as much as a third of the population.
There are also tighter brackets on working hours in Switzerland compared to other countries. Apart from in certain exceptions, work can only be conducted between 6am and 11pm, while the normal maximum hours are 45 per week.
Another fact that cuts down on usual working hours is the holiday timing; Swiss workers get at least four weeks off a year, which extends to five weeks if they are under the age of 20.
Heading up to Scandinavia now, Norway posted even lower average hours in 2016 according to Eurostat, down at 33.8.
While it may be cold and see less sunshine than other nations, Norway’s working conditions more than make up for the occasional winter gloom.
Employees get at least 21 days holiday each year, while parents of younger children can often secure reduced hours or a significant amount of parental leave per year. Maternity leave can extend over to around 35 weeks with pay, or over 40 weeks with part pay.
Part time work is also common among Norwegians.
Thanks to its favourable work-life balance, Norway frequently places highly in quality of life indexes.
Coming quite close to the top in Eurostat’s list of countries with the shortest working weeks in 2016 is Denmark, which clocked in at 32.9 hours.
Danish workers get five weeks holiday by default, which doesn’t include public holidays or company-specific days off.
Once again, part-time work is a strong contributing factor to low Danish working hours. The state is also generous when it comes to unemployment benefits.
As well as boasting highly attractive working weeks, Denmark is often the top-ranked country in quality of life measures.
Denmark was close to taking the crown for the shortest working week, but a quick perusal of the Netherland’s statistics puts Dutch workers out on top.
The average Dutch working week is around 29 hours, thanks to many workers taking four-day weeks.
Leave is extremely generous in the country, and determined by how long you work in the first place. The usual formula is for at least four times your weekly working days, so a five day week can bring a minimum of 20 days holiday.
Under certain conditions, like being in a labour union and working in certain sectors, holiday can even extend to around 30 or even 60 days off each year.
Boosting the Netherlands work-life balance even further, most employers are highly flexible when it comes to allotted hours, permitting work from home or from locations closer to the employee’s home.
Compared to other countries, the Netherlands’ childcare arrangements are not quite so rosy, but still entirely serviceable to a family moving to the country.
Working a short week may sound like paradise, but how does it stack up on the productivity scale? National productivity is measured by calculating GDP then dividing it by the number of hours worked, which gives a rough measure of productiveness in the form of money per hour.
On a measure of the most productive countries, France is not as high as might be expected, coming in at 15th place on the world ranking. This is equivalent to £19.51 per hour – more than UK workers.
Closer to the top spot, Germany clocks in at number 11, hitting £23.30. The Netherlands creeps even higher up the ratings, placing 9th at £24.04.
Edging in ahead of Iceland, Denmark places 4th, with a productivity measure of £28.87. There is a significant jump up to third place, with Swiss productivity hitting a higher £37.89.
Another country on our list, Norway, places second, at £39.72. The most productive nation, however, is a country not featured on our list – Luxembourg.
Based on Eurostat figures, Luxembourgians actually worked more than UK workers in 2016, clocking in an average 37.5 hours a week in 2016. This equated to productivity of £51.80.
Despite this greater period of time worked, however, Luxembourg still has a good work/life balance, with 5 weeks paid leave getting added onto public holidays.
Employers in the country are eager to retain top employees, so leave is granted for a wide range of circumstances and allowing family time is also a strong consideration.
For comparison’s sake, we’ll finish this one off at home – how does the UK measure up in terms of productivity? Unfortunately, the stats are not in the UK’s favour, with longer hours putting the UK at 17th place on the world’s most productive countries at £17.37. While there are factors other than working hours which come into the ‘productivity puzzle’, part-time work and a better work-life balance definitely come into the scores.
In May, the Green Party suggested a four-day week for the UK, but for the time being, it seems UK workers are stuck with the 9 to 5, 5 day week for the most part. So, if you’re seeking a better work/life balance abroad, you might want to consider one of the nations on our list!
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