Global Differences in Office Habits

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It’s been widely reported that Americans are overworked. According to the American Time Use Survey, Americans spend 8.7 hours at work on average. Time off isn’t abundant, benefits aren’t always provided, and meetings and emails can consume most of the work day.

How do we compare with other office cultures around the world? What can we learn from the average work day in another location, and do we really have it so bad after all?

Working hours

If you value your leisure time, it’s safe to say you may be better suited to office life in Europe. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the Netherlands, Norway and Germany work 1,500 hours across the year – what that looks like per week is anywhere between 30 and 35 hours. By contrast, Mexicans are the most overworked, tallying up 2,237 hours per person per year. Americans aren’t too far behind in the ranks, totaling 1,770 hours per person per year. But do longer working hours equate to better productivity? Hardly. According to Business Insider, research indicates that there is a point at which you hit a wall, and that point is 40 hours, and if you continue to work through this wall the quality of your work will suffer. Working longer hours requires a longer recovery time also. Additionally shorter workdays days tend to be more productive. Before you go running to your boss with this insight, consider the fact that Mexicans report the third highest positive psychological experiences (feeling rested, smiling, learning, and enjoyment) and lower than average negative experiences (pain, worry, stress, sadness, depression), which beg the questions: is a happy worker really the productive worker? Or is the happy worker a hard worker?

Start times

Have you ever been described as a Type A or a Type B person? Reports suggest one of the differences between Type A and Type B personalities is how they perceive time. Type A people are rarely late for work and can become easily irritated when things don’t run to clockwork. Based on this principle, Japan has a Type A driven work culture, workers are expected to be punctual for work, even train companies apologize for delays of a minute or more. Whereas, Type B people would be better suited to the flexibility in start times in the U.S. The average start time in the U.S. is 7.55 am, however in cities such as New York, most employees (75%) arrive by 9.32am. And who can you expect to show up later to work than Americans? Probably the Italians, because punctuality is not considered a priority and delays and tardiness are expected and accepted.

Lunch Breaks

According to a recent survey conducted by OfficeTeam, nearly half (48 percent) of respondents based in the U.S. said their lunch breaks usually last 30 minutes or less. Twenty-nine percent admit to not taking lunch breaks at all. While you may think you are accomplishing more by not taking the time to eat, this habit has a negative impact on productivity. Your brain needs fuel from food among other reasons, taking a lunch break can reset your creative energy and focus for the day.

In other countries, lunch breaks are a sacred part of the day, and you don’t have to spend your time eating either. In Japan, many employees are encouraged to take power naps during their lunch breaks and in Spain, the mid-afternoon siesta — a two-hour break between the hours of 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. — is still in firm effect. And maybe they’re onto something, a study showed that napping was more effective for alertness than a cup of coffee.

And if you’re one of those people whose creative juices start flowing when the alcohol is, the office culture in countries like Germany and Ireland might appeal most to you as it’s not uncommon to have an adult beverage at lunchtime, in fact most work cafeterias in Germany have a fully stocked beer fridge! Lunchtimes spent this way in the U.S. would most likely get you fired!

Time off

The typical U.S. worker at a private company gets 10 days of paid vacation and six paid holidays per year. That is markedly less than what employees in Europe receive. Brazil has the most generous vacation policy, mandating a minimum of 30 paid days off per year with 11 public holiday and in Australia total vacation and holiday time tallies up to 38 days per year. According to this article, only half of all first-time mothers in the US take any paid leave, and that payment usually comes from other benefits such as vacation time, sick days or short-term disability coverage. By comparison, Sweden offers the most generous maternity leave policy, with 56 weeks paid at 80 percent of salary, with an additional 13 additional weeks paid at a fixed rate thereafter. In some central European countries, the standard maternity leave is three years, and in the U.K., Canada, France and Sweden, adoptive parents and same-sex parents get parental leave, according to Payscale.

Life Work Balance

Do you live to work or work to live? A recent survey by Good Technology found that some 80 percent of the 1,000 Americans polled said they spend time checking emails and answering phone calls after hours comprising their ‘leisure’ time. 79% see being connected to work as a positive, because it allows workers the freedom to meet family needs, attend school events, or make appointments during the day, knowing they can monitor email while out of the office or log on later to catch up with work if needed.

This trend and mindset isn’t shared by the  French who have petitioned to make the practice of sending work emails after working hours illegal, in fact employers’ federations and unions have signed a legally binding labour agreement that will require employers to make sure staff “disconnect” outside of working hours. These provisions allow for workers to spend their free time to recharge and recoup without interruptions from work.

But who does the work-life balance best and worst? According to a report from the OECD that ranked its 34 member countries on a work-life balance scale, Denmark comes in first. It’s been noted that Danish people spend five to six hours a day on leisure, so not surprisingly, the Danish also hold the highest employee satisfaction rate globally. On the other end of the scale Turkey, where more than 45% of workers have work weeks of longer than 50 hours, comes in last.

The United States comes in 29th for work-life balance, and the reasons? Long work hours and a lack of social activities. This sounds like something that can be fixed with a few power naps and bar lunches per week.

What workplace trends have you experienced or heard about in other countries that you would love to see come into effect in your workplace?

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