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If You Are Staying In One Of These Countries, You Might Be Working Too Much!

These Countries Have The Longest & Shortest Working Hours In The World

“On average, people now spend approximately 13 years and two months of their lives at work.”

– 2017 article in the Huffington Post

“Most of the world’s population (58%) spends one-third of their adult life at work contributing actively to the development and well-being of themselves, their families and of society.”

– Article on the website of the World Health Organization

These are just TWO  of the millions of results we got in response to a Web search for the term ‘how much time do we spend at work?’

On a ‘macro’ level, the relationship between employment and economic growth may be a highly-debated issue among economists and policy-makers but it is also true that the former affects the latter in complex, multi-dimensional ways that just cannot be ignored.

So, regardless of nationality, gender, religion or socio-economic status, the world of work matters to everyone. However, not everyone agrees on ‘how much’ work matters. The number of hours a day a person devotes to their work differs from one country to another. To put this in another way, some countries have ‘long’ working hours while others have ‘short’ working hours.

Consider this example:

A 2018 report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose 36 members include many of the world’s most advanced countries (USA, UK, Australia, Germany, etc) but also some rapidly-developing and emerging nations (Chile, Turkey, Mexico, etc) found that in terms of hours worked, in 2017 Mexico had the longest work days, while Germany had the shortest.

But what do these words – long and short – really mean? The only way to understand the meaning of ‘long’ versus ‘short’ is to remember that these definitions are relative. In other words, a 40-45 hour (or even more) work-week may be considered ‘short’ in one country but it may be frowned upon and considered too ‘long’ in another country.

Countries With Relatively Longer Working Hours?

These Countries Have The Longest & Shortest Working Hours In The World

Going by this definition of ‘average annual hours worked’ in terms of hours/worker/year:

In 2017, the average Mexican spent a little over 2257 hours at work per year. This is the equivalent of over 43 hours per week (assuming he works all 52 weeks of the year).

In contrast, the average German spent only 1356 hours at work in a year, an equivalent of a 26-hour work week.

In 2017, the OECD annual average was 1744 hours/worker. This equates to 33.5 hours/worker/week.

All OECD countries where the average work week is longer than this average are:

Country Hours/worker Hours/worker/week

(52 weeks/year)

Mexico 2257 43
Costa Rica 2179 42
South Korea 2024 39
Russia 1980 38
Chile 1954 37.5
Greece 1906 36.6
Israel 1885 36.25
Turkey 1832 35
Estonia 1813 34.8
Poland 1812 34.8
USA 1780 34
Czech Republic 1776 34
New Zealand 1753 33.7
OECD AVERAGE 1744 33.5

In Europe, Greeks put in the most hours at work, but their work weeks are still almost 7 hours – roughly a full work day – shorter than the work weeks of Mexican workers.

Workers in the Czech Republic and New Zealand enjoy shorter work weeks than 11 other countries in the OECD, but they still work slightly longer than the OECD average of 33.5 hours/week.

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Countries With Relatively Shorter Working Hours?

In the OECD, only the 13 countries seen above have longer working hours than the OECD average.

The remaining 24 countries, however, enjoy shorter working hours; with the average annual hours worked per worker capped at approximately 1,740 hours or less.

These countries are (from longest hours to shortest):

Country Hours/worker Hours/worker/week

(52 weeks/year)

Hungary 1740.4 33
Ireland 1738 33
Italy 1723 33
Portugal 1718 33
Slovak Republic 1714 33
Japan 1710 33
Canada 1695 33
Latvia 1690 33
Spain 1687 32
Australia 1676 32
Slovenia 1655 32
Lithuania 1607 31
Switzerland 1570 30
Belgium 1531 29
Finland 1531 29
Luxembourg 1518 29
UK 1514 29
France 1514 29
Austria 1487 29
Iceland 1461 28
Sweden 1453 28
Netherlands 1433 28
Norway 1419 27
Denmark 1408 27
Germany 1356 26

In an average work year, German workers put in a whopping 901 hours (the equivalent of 17 weeks) less than their counterparts in Mexico. Like Germany, workers in Netherlands and 4 of the highly-developed Nordic countries of Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden also enjoy short work weeks of 27-28 hours.

How OECD Calculates Work Hours

These Countries Have The Longest & Shortest Working Hours In The World

According to the OECD, the number of hours worked per person in a given country is defined by the following formula:

Average annual hours worked = Total number of hours actually worked per year

(Hours per worker per year) Average number of people in employment per year

This definition determines which countries have long working hours and which ones have shorter working hours. This is also how OECD determined that Mexico had the longest work days among all the countries in the OECD group in 2017.

The OECD data covers both employed and self-employed workers.

What Makes Up Annual Working Hours

  • Regular work hours of full-time, part-time and part-year workers
  • Paid and unpaid overtime
  • Hours worked in additional jobs

What Doesn’t

  • Public holidays, strike, labour dispute or bad weather
  • Annual paid leave
  • Time off due to illness, injury or temporary disability
  • Maternity leave
  • Parental leave
  • Sabbaticals for schooling or additional training
  • Slack work for technical or economic reasons
  • Compensation leave, etc

Why The Disparity In Working Hours Within The OECD?

These Countries Have The Longest & Shortest Working Hours In The World

Socio-economic, historical and cultural factors play an important role in determining how many hours the workers in a particular country work during an average week.

In Mexico, long-standing fears about unemployment, rising inflation and slowing economic growth means that people work longer hours per week. At the other end of the spectrum, German workers put in fewer hours at work and enjoy a better work-life balance thanks to a culture that gives importance to leisure as well as work. Also, because they live in an advanced, highly industrialised economy – Europe’s largest and strongest – they don’t feel the same desperation to work longer hours in order to increase their income. Despite the shorter working hours, however, German workers are among the most productive in the world, ahead of workers in the UK (who are 27% less productive than the Germans, according to a 2017 report by the UK’s Independent newspaper), France and even the US.

Workers in the rich European countries of Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Iceland also work fewer than 1500 hours per year on average, over 200 hours (approximately 5.5 weeks) fewer hours than the OECD average. According to the OECD 2017 Better Life Report, workers in Denmark enjoy the best work-life balance in the world. In addition, the percentage of Danish employees who regularly work ‘very long hours’ has steadily declined since 2008 to only 2%, compared to the overall OECD average of 13%.

In 2017, the developed nation with the longest working hours was South Korea. In fact, work weeks in this country were longer than in any other OECD country except Mexico and Costa Rica, mainly due to official efforts to boost economic growth. However, long work hours have also fuelled concerns about social problems such as falling birth rates and slowing productivity. To address these concerns as well as changing societal attitudes towards work, South Korea’s National Assembly passed a law in March 2018 to slash working hours (capping the maximum allowed from 68 hours/week to 52 hours/week) and give its workers the ‘right to rest’. This may be why the average annual hours worked by South Korean workers fell from 2,084 hours in 2015 to 2,071 hours in 2016 and finally to 2,024 hours in 2017.

Japan, another developed country in the OECD, has for years been associated with a workaholic culture that spawned the term karoshi (death by overwork). Japan’s culture of working long hours was formed during the boom times of the 1960s-1990s, when people who worked overtime were valued and therefore enjoyed greater career success.

However, the rising number of karoshi cases has fuelled a demand for reforming labour laws, improving working conditions and of course reducing the work hours across the Japanese workforce. This may be why the OECD report found that in 2017, the average Japanese worker worked only about 1,710 hours per year (a 33-hour work week), a figure that is below the OECD average of 1,744 hours. The 2017 figure is the lowest for Japan in 4 years, falling from 1,729 in 2014 to 1,719 in 2015 and 1,714 in 2016.

What About Countries Outside The OECD?

These Countries Have The Longest & Shortest Working Hours In The World

The OECD is a group of only 36 out of the almost 200 countries in the world today. Therefore, OECD’s report does not provide any information about the working hours in non-OECD countries.  

A 2018 World Employment Social Outlook study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) showed that lower and middle-income countries tend to work longer hours than their richer, more developed counterparts.

Why Lower & Middle-Income Countries Log In More Hours

  • Lower wages
  • Lower standard of living
  • Job insecurity
  • Larger families
  • Socio-cultural attitudes
  • Historical precedents

In Asia, more people work the longest hours. Many countries have no universal national limit for maximum weekly working hours and some have thresholds as high as 60 weekly hours or more in most developed countries. According to a BBC report, since May 2018, only 4% of Asian countries have been abiding by the ILO’s international labour standards on working time, some of which have been in place since 1919 and have set the maximum threshold of 48 hours for the working week. Many countries such as India also do not have a legally-guaranteed minimum amount of annual leave, a factor that affects the average annual hours worked by people in the workforce.

According to a 2016 analysis of 71-cities by Swiss bank UBS, workers in several Asian cities were found working longer hours.

Asian Cities To Feature In The Top 10

#1: Hong Kong (China): 50.11 hours/week

#2: Mumbai (India): 43.78 hours/week

#4: New Delhi (India): 42.57 hours/week

#5: Bangkok (Thailand): 42.1 hours/week

#6: Dubai (UAE): 42.03 hours/week

#8: Taipei (China): 41.17 hours/week

#9: Jakarta (Indonesia): 40.42 hours/week

Hong Kong also holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s stingiest city with regards to annual leave offered to its workers: 17.2 days/year, compared to the global average of 23 days.

The BBC report mentioned earlier also found that 34% of countries in the Americas and the Caribbean have no universal weekly hours limit. In the Middle East, long hours are legally allowed, with eight out of 10 countries permitting workers to put in over 60 hours per week.

These figures are in stark contrast to Europe, where most countries have legally stipulated that a work week be capped at 48 hours. In some European countries such as Belgium, although the legal working week is capped at 38 hours, companies are allowed to alter working hours in line with their particular requirements, as long as workers are appropriately remunerated for overtime.

Finally, the report found that Africa has the largest number of countries in which more than one-third of the labour force works over 48 hours per week.

In general, according to visualisations prepared by Our World in Data:

A country’s GDP per capita is inversely proportional to the number of hours worked. In other words, people in richer countries work less. For example, in 1990, workers in Brazil worked an average of 1,879 hours/year. As the country has developed economically, this number has fallen, with Brazilians workers putting in only 1,711 hours/year (33 hours/week) in 2014.

A country’s productivity is also inversely proportional to the annual number of hours put in by its workers. Again using Brazil as an example: in 1950, each worker worked an average of 2,042 hours/year while the country’s productivity (GDP per hour worked) was a meagre USD 2.12 (2011 terms). In 2014, workers worked only 1,711 hours but their productivity was equivalent to USD 16.84.

Final Thoughts

The length of the average working week (and year) varies depending from one country to another. While workers in some countries are burning the midnight oil, others are enjoying excellent work-life balance. A number of factors determine the extent of these disparities. They also determine why these disparities exist in the first place.

In general, workers in rich, developed nations tend to have shorter working hours. They also enjoy other perks such as guaranteed annual leave, maternity/paternity leave and of course, better working conditions. By contrast, workers in low and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas not only work longer hours, but also also suffer from lower pay, greater job insecurity (greater unemployment rates), ‘working poverty’ (poverty despite regular employment) and have fewer guaranteed leaves.