Workers in the UK and USA work much longer hours per year than those in France and Germany. This has partly to do with the number of days paid holiday per year, partly with the number of hours worked per day and partly with the number of days worked per week.
According to the latest OECD figures, in 2017 average hours worked per year ranged from 2257 in Mexico (the OECD’s highest) to 1780 in the USA, 1710 in Japan, 1681 in the UK, 1514 in France, 1408 in Denmark and 1356 in Germany (the OECD’s lowest). Annual working hours have been falling in most countries across the decades, as the chart shows. However, in most countries the process has slowed in recent years and in the UK, the USA and France working hours have begun to rise. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
But why do working hours differ so much from country to country? How do they relate to productivity? How do they relate to human happiness and welfare more generally?
Causes of the differences
There are various reasons for the differences in hours worked between countries.
In a situation where individual workers can choose how many hours to work, they have to decide the best trade off for them between income and leisure. As wages rise over time, there will be substitution and income effects of these extra hourly wages. Higher wages make work more valuable in terms of what people can buy from an extra hour’s work. There is thus an incentive to substitute work for leisure and hence work longer. This is the substitution effect. On the other hand, higher wages allow people to work fewer hours for a given income. This is the income effect.
As incomes rise, generally the substitution effect will tend to decline relative to the income effect. This is because of the diminishing marginal utility of income. Richer people will tend to value a given rise in income less than poorer people and therefore will value the income from extra work less than poorer people. Richer people will prefer to work fewer hours than poorer people. Generally workers in richer OECD countries work fewer hours than those in poorer OECD countries.
But this does not explain why people in the USA, Canada, Japan and the UK work longer hours than people in Germany, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands and France.
One possible explanation for these differences is the role of trade unions. These tend to be stronger in countries with lower working hours. Reducing the working week or obtaining longer holidays is one of the key objectives of unions.
Another is income distribution. The USA, despite its high average (mean) income, has a relatively unequal distribution of income compared with Germany or France. The post-tax-and-benefits Gini coefficient in the USA is around 0.39, whereas in Germany it is 0.29, meaning that Germany has a more equal distribution of disposable income than the USA. In fact, rises in real incomes in the USA over the past 10 years have gone almost exclusively to the top 10 per cent of earners, leaving the median income little changed. In fact median household income only rose above its 2007 (pre-recession) level in 2016.
Social and cultural explanations may also be important. People in countries with higher working hours relative to hourly wages may put a greater store on consumption relative to leisure. The desire to shop may be very strong. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic model pursued by right-of-centre governments in English-speaking countries, such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK puts emphasis on low taxes, low regulation, low public expenditure and self-advancement. Such a model encourages a more individualistic approach to work, with more emphasis on earning money.
Then there is the attitude to hours worked generally. There is a saying that in the UK the last one to leave the office is seen as the hardest working, whereas in Germany the last one to leave is seen as the least efficient. Social pressures, from colleagues, family, friends and society more generally can have a major effect on people’s choices between work and leisure.
Productivity, in terms of output per hour worked, tends to decline as workers work longer hours. People get tired and possibly bored and demotivated towards the end of a long day or week. If workers are paid by the output they produce and if productivity declines towards the end of the day, then the hourly wage would fall as the day progresses. This would act as a disincentive to work long hours. In practice, most workers are normally paid a constant rate per hour for normal-time working. For overtime, they may even be paid a higher rate, despite their likely lower productivity. This encourages them to work longer hours than if they were paid according to their marginal productivity.
Linking pay more closely to productivity could encourage people to opt for fewer hours (if they had the choice). Indeed some companies are now encouraging workers to choose their hours – which may mean fewer hours as people seek a better work–life balance. (See the BBC article below about PwC’s employment strategy.) Alternatively, some other employers adopt the system of giving workers a set amount of work to do and then they can leave work when it is finished. This acts as an incentive to work more efficiently.
It is interesting that countries where workers work more hours per year tend to have a lower output per hour worked relative to output per worker than countries where workers work fewer hours. This is illustrated in the chart opposite. The USA, with its longer working hours, has higher output per person employed than France and Germany but very similar output per hour worked.
Hours and happiness
So are people who choose to work longer hours and take home more money likely to be happier than those who choose to work fewer hours and take home less money? If people were rational and had perfect knowledge, then they would choose the balance between work and leisure that best suited them.
In practice, labour markets are highly imperfect. People often do not have choices about the amount they work; they work the hours they are told. Even if they do have a choice, they are unlikely to have perfect knowledge about the impact of long hours on their health and happiness over their lifetime. They may not even be good judges of the shorter-term effects of more work and more pay. They may believe that more money will buy them more happiness only to find soon afterwards that they are wrong.
- What factors are likely to encourage workers to work longer hours?
- Give some examples of jobs where workers have flexibility in the amount of hours they work per week and jobs where the working week is of a fixed length.
- For what reasons are annual working hours longer in the USA than in Germany?
- Would it be in employers’ interests if the government legislated so as to reduce the maximum permitted working week? Explain.
- What is meant by ‘efficiency wages’? How relevant is the concept to the issue of the average number of hours worked per year from country to country?
- Explain why people in poorer countries tend to work more hours per year than people in richer countries.
- If workers’ wages equalled their marginal revenue product, why might some workers choose to work more and others choose to work less (assuming they had a choice)?
- Are jobs in the gig economy and zero-hour contract jobs in the interests of workers?
- Is South Korea wise to cut its work limit from 68 hours a week to 52?
Productivity has been a bit of a problem for the UK economy for a number of years. Earlier posts from 2015 have discussed the trend in Tackling the UK’s poor productivity and The UK’s poor productivity record. Although the so-called ‘productivity gap’ has been targeted by the government, with George Osborne promising to take steps to encourage more long-term investment in infrastructure and create better incentives for businesses to improve productivity, the latest data suggest that the problem remains.
The ONS has found that the UK continues to lag behind the other members of the G7, but perhaps more concerning is that the gap has grown to its biggest since 1991. The data showed that output per hour worked was 20 percentage points lower in the UK than the average for the other G7 countries. The economic downturn did cause falls in productivity, but the UK has not recovered as much as other advanced nations. One of the reasons, according to the Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight is that it ‘had been held back since the financial crisis by the creation of lots of low-skilled, low-paid jobs’. These are the jobs where productivity is lowest and this may be causing the productivity gap to expand. Other cited reasons include the lack of investment which Osborne is attempting to address, fewer innovations and problems of finance.
Despite these rather dis-heartening data, there are some signs that things have begun to turn around. In the first quarter of 2015, output per hour worked did increase at the fastest annual growth rate in 3 years and Howard Archer confirmed that this did show ‘clear sign that UK productivity is now seeing much-needed improvement.’ There are other signs that we should be optimistic, delivered by the Bank of England. Sir John Cunliffe, Deputy Governor for financial stability said:
“firms have a greater incentive to find efficiency gains and to switch away from more labour-intensive forms of production. This should boost productivity.”
The reason given for this optimism is the increase in the real cost of labour relative to the cost of investment. So, a bit of a mixed picture here. UK productivity remains a cause for concern and given its importance in improving living standards, the Conservative government will be keen to demonstrate that its policies are closing the productivity gap. The latest data is more promising, but that still leaves a long way to go. The following articles consider this data and news.
UK productivity shortfall at record high Financial Times, Emily Cadman (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags behind rest of 7 BBC News (17/9/15)
UK’s poor productivity figures show challenge for the government The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags G7 peers in 2014-ONS Reuters (18/9/15)
UK productivity second lowest in G7 Fresh Business Thinking, Jonathan Davies (18/9/15)
UK is 33% less productive than Germany Economia (18/9/15)
UK productivity is in the G7 ‘slow lane’ Sky News (18/9/15)
AMECO Database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs
Labour Productivity, Q1 2015 ONS (1/7/15)
International Comparisons of Productivity, 2014 – First Estimates ONS (18/9/15)
- How could we measure productivity?
- Why should we be optimistic about productivity if the real cost of labour is rising?
- If jobs are being created at slower rate and the economy is still expanding, why does this suggest that productivity is rising? What does it suggest about pay?
- Why is a rise in productivity needed to improve living standards?
Real GDP depends on two things: output per hour worked and the number of hours worked. On the surface, the UK economy is currently doing relatively well, with growth in 2014 of 2.8%. After several years of poor economic growth following the financial crisis of 2007/8, growth of 2.8% represents a return to the long-run average for the 20 years prior to the crisis.
But growth since 2010 has been entirely due to an increase in hours worked. On the one hand, this is good, as it has meant an increase in employment. In this respect, the UK is doing better than other major economies. But productivity has not grown and on this front, the UK is doing worse than other countries.
The first chart shows UK output per hour worked (click here for a PowerPoint). It is based on figures released by the ONS on 1 April 2015. Average annual growth in output per hour worked was 2.3% from 2000 to 2008. Since then, productivity growth has stalled and output per hour is now lower than at the peak in 2008.
The green line projects from 2008 what output per hour would have been if its growth had remained at 2.3%. It shows that by the end of 2014 output per hour would have been nearly 18% higher if productivity growth had been maintained.
The second chart compares UK productivity growth with other countries (click here for a PowerPoint). Up to 2008, UK productivity was rising slightly faster than in the other five countries illustrated. Since then, it has performed worse than the other five countries, especially since 2011.
Productivity growth increases potential GDP. It also increases actual GDP if the productivity increase is not offset by a fall in hours worked. A rise in hours worked without a rise in productivity, however, even though it results in an increase in actual output, does not increase potential output. If real GDP growth is to be sustained over the long term, there must be an increase in productivity and not just in hours worked.
The articles below examines this poor productivity performance and looks at reasons why it has been so bad.
UK’s sluggish productivity worsened in late 2014 – ONS Reuters (1/4/15)
UK productivity growth is weakest since second world war, says ONS The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/4/15)
UK productivity weakness worsening, says ONS Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/4/15)
Is the UK’s sluggish productivity a problem? Financial Times comment (1/4/15)
UK manufacturing hits eight-month high but productivity slump raises fears over sustainability of economic recovery This is Money, Camilla Canocchi (1/4/15)
Weak UK productivity unprecedented, ONS says BBC News (1/4/15)
Weep for falling productivity Robert Peston (1/4/15)
UK’s Falling Productivity Prevented A Massive Rise In Unemployment Forbes, Tim Worstall (2/4/15)
Labour Productivity, Q4 2014 ONS (1/4/15)
AMECO database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs
- How can productivity be measured? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using specific measures?
- Draw a diagram to show the effects on equilibrium national income of (a) a productivity increase, but offset by a fall in the number of hours worked; (b) a productivity increase with hours worked remaining the same; (c) a rise in hours worked with no increase in productivity. Assume that actual output depends on aggregate demand.
- Is poor productivity growth good for employment? Explain.
- Why is productivity in the UK lower now than in 2008?
- What policies can be pursued to increase productivity in the UK?
Countries differ considerably in terms of the number of hours people work.
Despite the criticisms levelled at Greece, with some claiming that Greek workers are ‘lazy’, according to 2010 figures, the average worker in Greece worked 2109 hours per year – more than in any other European country. The average German worker worked 1419 hours and the average Dutch worker only 1377.
Internationally, amongst developed countries, Korea has the highest number of working hours per worker at 2193 per year. In the USA, the figure is 1778 hours and in the UK it’s 1647. (Click on chart below for a larger version.)
But working long hours does not mean working more productively. Generally the countries in which people work longer hours have lower output per hour.
The following podcast and articles look at the relationship between hours worked and productivity and consider which way the causality lies. They also look at related issues such as the proportion of part-time working and the length of annual paid holidays.
Hardest Working Nations (also at) More or Less: BBC Radio 4, Tim Harford talks to Jon Messenger from the ILO (18/5/12)
Who works the longest hours? BBC News Magazine, Wesley Stephenson (23/5/12)
Are Greeks the hardest workers in Europe? BBC News Magazine, Charlotte McDonald (26/2/12)
Working Time around the World ILO, Sangheon Lee, Deirdre McCann and Jon C. Messenger (Routledge, 2007)
International Comparisons of Productivity – 2010 – Final Estimates: Statistical Bulletin ONS (6/3/12)
International Comparisons of Productivity – 2010 – Final Estimates: Data ONS (6/3/12)
Productivity Statistics OECD
Table 8: Average annual working time: Hours per worker Employment and Labour Markets, OECD
- Which countries tend to work the longest hours?
- Would cutting working hours, either through legislation or by agreement with companies, allow more people to be employed? Explain why it might be more complicated than this.
- What is the relationship between labour productivity per hour and the average number of hours worked per worker? Do people work longer hours because they are less productive or are they less productive because they work longer hours?
- Why factors determine labour productivity?
- Why may average hours worked be deceptive in terms of assessing how hard people are working?
- Why do US workers work more hours per year on average than UK workers?