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.
- Why Americans and Britons work such long hours
- Boasting about how many hours you work is a sign of failure
- PwC tells new staff they can choose what hours to work
- South Korea cuts its work limit from 68 hours a week to 52
The Economist, Free Exchange (22/12/18)
Quartz, Olivia Goldhill (8/12/18)
BBC News (30/8/18)
CNN, Maritza Moulite (2/7/18)
- Hours worked
- International comparisons of productivity
- OECD Income Distribution Database (IDD)
OECD data (3/1/19)
- 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?