In Focus:  Work Hours

The subject of how hard people work, or rather don’t work, is a big cheap-shot magnet.

"Those factory people are lazy." "Nobody in accounting works more than 9-to-5." "It’s Friday afternoon? I bet the sales guys all already left."

We’ve all heard them before. Between the lines, these remarks say: "I (or We) work harder than they do!", reflecting a perception of superiority that seemingly makes most of us feel good about ourselves.

This pattern repeats itself when it comes to other countries, though the comments tend to become more snide. Quips about "these French and Germans taking off all summer" are legion. And who hasn’t heard, or talked, about those "Mexicans / Argentines / Greeks / Portuguese / Nigerians / Arabs / Indians / Pakistanis / ..." (feel free to add your personal favorite here) who "enjoy life in the sun rather than putting in good, hard work"?

Plenty such national stereotypes exist. Some might include a small nucleus of truth, some are just that: stereotypes.

But wait, now: Mexicans? That’s funny. The OECD just published an extensive update on a multi-year report on hours worked around the world. The organization identified the country where people work the hardest, that is, where the average overall number of hours worked per day is the highest, to be (are you sitting down?) ...

      ... Mexico !

As we know from that old line about lying with statistics, we should check the data first. Alright, let’s take a closer look. Here's what I found:

The OECD’s report, called Society at a Glance, attempts to capture numerous social indicators across 40 countries whose economies are either fully or nearly fully developed. The data on time use includes unpaid work, activities distinguished from leisure by the "third-person" criterion: if a third person could be paid to do the activity, it is considered to be work. The accepted, as well as the only available, method of assessing time use leverages individual surveys that record how people make use of their time. These surveys were conducted over periods of time thought to be most representative for the average work year. Both aspects obviously leave room for error. A further source of error lies in the fact that the data for most countries includes some vacation time, not factored in for others, such as Mexico. Given that many Mexicans typically enjoy no or relatively short vacations, the impact of the latter appears to be rather small in that country’s case, though. Age groups surveyed were 15-64 in most but not all countries, where inputs from younger people generally tend to be less precise than those of older respondents. The inputs for most countries were collected in the 2005-2009 timeframe, but some go back as far as 1999. Lastly, the survey questions in Ireland and Mexico were simplified and are thus intrinsically less precise. All of these factors introduce potential errors; none of these errors are likely to be huge, though.

Who Works the Hardest

According to the study, an average Mexican spends a bit more than 10 hours per day on paid and unpaid work combined. This compares to almost 8.5 hours in China and India, 8 hours and 10 minutes in the US, just under 7.5 hours in Germany, and 7 hours and 12 minutes in Belgium, the country showing the lowest total in the study. When comparing only paid work, Japan emerges the 'winner', with almost 6.5 hours worked. (Keep in mind that these averages represent the seven days of the week, as well as vacation time/holidays). In the #2 spot follow three countries: China, South Korea, and (again!) Mexico. Lowest on the list: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, each reporting averages of less than 4 hours of paid work per day(!).

What are we to make of all this? The choice is yours. Those inclined to do so could further challenge the accuracy of the data collection, question the honesty of those surveyed, or argue that people in their home country work less but compensate for it by working much more efficiently (if I only got a dollar for every time I heard this one!).

Alternatively, maybe they could question their own stereotypes?

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Book Of The Month
at the Crossroads


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Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


The OECD publishes a wealth of statistics, analyses, trend assessments, and back­ground articles about each of the UN member countries.

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Half of the world
does not know
how the other half lives

François Rabelais


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Global Business Practices:
Ten Tips for Doing Business in Greece

  • Many Greeks are immensely proud of their country and might strongly reject any critique of its ways.
  • Make sure to treat senior executives and elderly people with the greatest respect.
  • Strong relationships are vital in Greece. Proceed with serious business discussions only after your counterparts have visibly become comfortable with you.
  • While meetings may start considerably late, Greeks generally expect foreign visitors to be punctual.
  • Initial small talk is important and can be extensive. Wait for your counterparts to bring up the subject of business.
  • Communication may sometimes appear vague, especially early on. Watch for subtle messages signaling issues or concerns.
  • Keep your cool and never show openly that you are upset. Avoid open conflict and mask anger with a smile.
  • Greeks often converse in close proximity, standing two feet or so apart. Backing away could be read as a sign that you are uncomfortable around them.
  • Since they respect assertiveness, Greeks usually speak forcefully. Conversations may get loud and passionate.
  • Eye contact should be fairly frequent, as this conveys sincerity and builds trust.

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