Setting up shop

The self-employed (who represent 16 per cent of the EU workforce) are often considered as a sector beyond the reach of working time legislation. The group (who are mainly agricultural, professional and service industry workers) put in substantially more hours on the job. In 2010, just over 60 per cent said they worked six or seven days a week, compared to 15 per cent of “normal” employees. In Europe, 47 per cent of the self-employed reported working over 48 hours a week, compared to only 13 per cent of people in full-time employment.

On the whole, this sector of Europe’s workforce enjoys independence in the workplace. When asked: “Do you enjoy being your own boss?” the vast majority of recipients said “yes”. (In Sweden the response was a firm 100 per cent; in Albania it was an unsure 60.) So it would appear that Europeans get their kicks from going solo, but end up putting more hours in when they do.

À la française: the 35-hour week

France’s 35-hour workweek was brought into force in 2000 by Lionel Jospin’s “Plural Left” administration with the aim of reducing unemployment (then at 8.5 per cent), and giving the French workforce a better work-life balance.

But when Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 with the campaign slogan "work more to earn more”, he quickly pushed through reforms to allow employers to strike deals with unions and employees which effectively made it possible for French to work up to the EU’s 48-hour limit. Sarkozy argued that productivity growth has slowed and that the caps cost the French state €10bn a year.

Politicians still debate whether or not the 35-hour laws worked. Studies show that during its seven-year life the legislation had mixed results: while working hours declined sharply across France, the new work week received varying satisfaction levels. Managers (those tasked with fixing the fiendishly complicated new systems) disliked the changes most, while shorter working hours were most popular with high-income women with children. Men reported reduced levels of satisfaction with their working time. Overall, the educated enjoyed their time off more. And just about everyone said they were unhappy with the rigidity of the imposed working hours.

Most experts think the rules did not create jobs. “There was no evidence of an increase in jobs,” says Barbara Petrongolo, senior economic lecturer at LSE. “The facts are that people on average were working two hours less per week, although this was without reduction in monthly salaries.”

So you think you work hard…

Developing countries rack up the longest working hours. Peru tops the International Labour Organization’s list, (with 50.9 per cent of its working population putting in more than 48 hours a week), closely followed by South Korea, Thailand, and Pakistan. (In the US, the figure is 18.1 per cent.)

Poorer countries tend to have a polarised workforce; part-time work is often the result of underemployment – low wages and impending poverty make long hours a necessity to make ends meet. Low productivity is another culprit. One ILO report shows that an employee in Latin America is nearly three times less productive than his counterpart in a developed economy. (In sub-Saharan Africa he is one 12th as productive as a worker in an industrialised country.)

“It’s a vicious circle,” says Jon Messenger, co-author of the ILO book Working Time Around the World. “Long working hours, low wages, and low productivity are all connected. We estimate that 600 million people worldwide are working excessively long hours.”

Work in progress

Lie back and think of Spain

For many Spanish people the siesta is just a distant memory (especially if they work for a global corporation) but it’s far from dead. This helps explain why so many Spaniards think dinner at 23.00 is sane and normal.

Get out of here

The Australia Institute promotes a ‘Go Home on Time Day’ aimed at highlighting the fact that Aussies work some of the longest hours in the western world.

You gotta work

Look through the windows of a Japanese office at night and you will see people still at their desks. One reason: it’s seen as bad form to leave before your boss calls it a day.

Finnishing time

Working late is frowned upon in Finland, where bosses believe it is inefficient to work any later than 17.00.

Flex appeal

In the US flexitime workers were discovered to have lower stress levels. Simply being able to avoid rush-hour traffic made life feel better.

Upstairs, downstairs

Many British people don’t know when to stop work. Laptops in bed? What’s wrong with that?

Make a meal of it

The French may have abandoned their 35-hour week (well, some people) but they have not succumbed to the sandwich-at-desk-lunch.

Monocle 24

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