How the World Works: Work Hours

There’s no consensus on what constitutes an honest day’s work. Or an honest week’s work, for that matter. No matter what type of employee time tracking system you’re using, from a traditional punch clock to a modern time sheet app, determining how many work hours you can reasonably ask of your employees is a question about as old as work itself.

Indeed, the standard working week is as much a cultural and political creation as an economic one. Over the past 150 years in the industrialized world, the length of the standard workweek has steadily declined, both as a result of increased productivity and labor movements that have put pressure on employers and governments to give workers a rest.

Today, significant differences in the standard workweek –– both in terms of legal restrictions and cultural expectations –– persist throughout the world. Here’s a look at how different countries approach the issue. 

United States: 40 hours

A report prepared in in 1893 by U.S. Labor Commissioner Carroll D. Wright estimated that the typical factory employee worked for 60 hours a week. Those hours were nevertheless far shorter than those worked by employees in the past. Indeed, the report estimated that the average factory worker in 1850 put in just under 70 hours a week.

Things started to change dramatically at the turn of the 20th century. A burgeoning labor movement demanded shorter hours, with many specifically calling for an eight-hour workday. Fierce labor disputes between unions and employers, some of which turned violent, led to concessions from employers as well as increased political support for creating stricter limits on working hours. Ford Motor Company put the eight-hour workday in place in 1914, a change that preceded record profits for the company. But it wasn’t until 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law that the 40-hour workweek that the current legal overtime framework went into effect, mandating that those who work more than 40 hours a week be granted pay higher than their typical hourly rate.

While Americans continue to think of the “9-to-5” as typical, studies show that many U.S. employees work far more. A study found that the average full-time employee works just under 47 hours per week. The same study found that about 42 percent say they work the standard 9-to-5 schedule, while only 8 percent say they get away with less. Meanwhile, half of full-time workers say they go beyond 40 hours, with 21 percent saying they work between 50-59 hours a week and 18 percent saying they work at least 60!

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France: 35 hours

France’s labor history closely mirrored that of the United States during the first half of the 20th century and the first couple decades following World War II. Similar to the U.S., for instance, France adopted the 40-hour workweek in 1936.

But major differences have emerged in recent decades as France has continued to pass laws aimed at reducing the work burden on employees, putting particular emphasis on restricting weekly hours. In 1982, the government reduced the standard workweek to 39 hours. And in 2000, it reduced it again to 35 hours.

Employers are granted a certain degree of flexibility, but not much compared to their counterparts in many other industrialized countries. Workers are allowed to put in up to 39 hours a week but must be compensated with either overtime pay or additional time off. Annual overtime hours are capped at 220 per employee.

A law that went into effect in 2017 further established a worker’s “right to disconnect” during off hours. Companies are required to develop email policies with their workers that reserves a certain amount of time during which the employee is not expected to respond to emails or do other remote work. While some hailed the law as an overdue check on managers who keep their workers on a 24/7 digital leash, others described it as yet another unnecessary intrusion of a one-size-fits-all government regulation into the workplaces of France’s stagnant economy.

China: 40 hours

It’s well-established that the average Chinese employee works far more than his western counterpart. A study by Chinese researchers estimated that the average worker puts in between 2,000 and 2,200 hours a year on the job, compared to an average of 1,790 in the U.S., 1,674 in the United Kingdom and 1,482 in France.

Those who work the longest hours are often those on the bottom rungs of the economy. Eighty-five percent of China’s migrant workers who make up a big part of the factory workforce in major cities, for instance, work more than 44 hours a week.

And yet, the legal workweek in China is 40 hours. According to the China Law Blog, a website aimed at foreign businesses operating in China, most employees are owed overtime pay (150% the hourly wage) whenever they exceed eight hours of work a day or 40 hours of work a week. Employers cannot ask employees to work more than three overtime hours per day or 36 overtime hours per month. However, the latter rule is often ignored, reports China Briefing, a business advice site, particularly when it comes to factory workers.

Sweden: 40

Sweden has gotten a lot of attention over an experiment aimed at reducing the workweek run by one of its largest cities. For two years, employees of a public nursing home operated by the city of Gothenburg worked six-hour days, or 30 hours a week.

At the end of the experiment, the results were mixed. Employees reported higher levels of satisfaction and were found to be more productive. But the system simply proved too costly to maintain, simply because the nursing home had to hire a large number of additional employees to make up for the shorter shifts.

Sweden thus does not appear poised to change its 40-hour workweek. Nevertheless, Swedish workers do appear to benefit from a better work-life balance than their peers in other industrialized nations, with the average Swede only putting in 36 hours a week. Employees are not allowed to work more than 50 overtime hours per month or more than 200 per year. However, there is no legal standard for overtime pay; most companies negotiate the specifics with unions.

What does the future hold?

Accompanying predictions that many workers will one day be replaced by robots is the question of how our work load expectations will change. If technological innovation leads to increased productivity, why should we continue putting in 40 hours a week just out of habit? If we once thought 60 hours a week was fair, might we not one day believe that 40 hours was way too much? What’s stopping us from cutting our workweek in half?

These are tough questions that workers, employers and government leaders will continue to grapple with in coming years. And as we have seen over the last century, so too in the next one will different countries likely come to different conclusions based on their own cultural and economic realities.

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