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Differences in Average Working Hours Around the World

Differences in Average Working Hours Around the World main image

One of the key findings that came out of our recently released report on Trends in International Student Mobility was the high average working hours expected by those applying for graduate-level degrees. Conducted in association with the QS World Grad School Tour, the research asked graduate degree applicants a series of questions about their motivations for completing a master’s or PhD, as well as future career aims and expectations.

Overwhelmingly, respondents said they expected to work more than a ‘standard’ 40-hour week in their first role after completing a graduate degree. (Get the full statistics here.)

To what extent does our survey snapshot correspond to current working hour practices around the world? I did some research, combining official statistics with the experiences of friends and colleagues (and one relative) who have lived and worked in different parts of the world.

Working hours in Canada & the US

According to official statistics on working hours in Canada, employed Canadians worked an average of 36.6 hours per week in 2012, with significant variation depending on age, gender and location. For example, in Quebec the average working hours were 35.4 hours, compared to 39 hours in Alberta – a clear reminder that even within the same country, working hours can vary a lot.

Data released last year showed average working hours in the US to be around 1,700 hours per year. This comes out higher than most European countries (especially Western Europe) but lower than many Asian nations, and OECD data likewise suggests average working hours in the US are relatively high, at least in comparison to other OECD nations.

Casey, based in Portland, says the general cultural expectation in the US remains the traditional “9 to 5” – but that it’s increasingly common to work beyond this. “In many industries and regions, upwards of 12 hours per day has become the norm.” Nicole, also based in Portland, agrees that while eight hours per day is often the "official" expectation, many employees feel they need to work longer hours if they want to get ahead. Professional sectors particularly known for “crazy hours” include the legal, medical and airline sectors.

Clement, originally from France and having spent time working in the US, Malta and the UK, says the US definitely has the longest working hours expectations of these four countries. “American companies do not seem to impose any working hour restrictions on their employees. With the choice to work 24/7, a 70-hour week could be completely normal in the US.”

Working hours in Europe

Overall, both official statistics and my own anecdotal research suggest average working hours in Europe tend to be lower than those in the US, but of course this varies depending on the country. According to the latest OECD data, from 2012, average annual working hours are relatively high in Eastern European countries such as Greece, Russia, Poland, Estonia, Hungary and the Czech Republic – all of which come out higher than the US. On the other hand, the majority of Western European countries, including the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, all have lower average annual working hours than the US.

France in particular has a reputation for relatively low working hours, particularly since 2000, when the government introduced a standard 35-hour working week, with any additional hours considered overtime. However, regardless of the legislation, it seems many people in France do work longer than this. Katy, from the UK but working in the French capital, says, “The 35-hour week isn’t particularly well-respected in Paris, with most people in my experience working longer.”

Clement agrees that the 35-hour week usually ends up being longer, though still far below the US average, with countries such as Malta and the UK (where he has also worked) coming out somewhere in between at around 40-42 hours per week. He adds, “I would be tempted to say that in Anglophone countries people are expected to work longer hours to reach targets, whereas in France targets need to be reached without employees going over their set hours – the employer needs to compensate the employee for any extra time.”

He points out, however, that while lower-level employees are encouraged to keep to their set hours (while maintaining productivity), those at management level are typically encouraged to work extra hours. There are also special allowances for some sectors. “Customer-orientated roles and positions in the service industry – travel, leisure, catering, accommodation and so on – have specific working hours rules, taking into account market requirements such as the need to work on public holidays and outside of office hours.” Katy adds, “Those in jobs that demand longer shifts, such as medical professions, usually get extra days of holiday to make up for the longer hours they work (known as RTT).”

Felix, from the US and currently studying in Frankfurt, says he’s observed a similar approach to working hours in Germany, where he says people spend less time working compared to those in the US, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they get less done. “The main thing I notice is that in Germany, they don't really work long hours, but very efficiently. Many people only work four days a week, taking the last half of Thursday and Friday off. Meanwhile in the US it is expected to work at least eight hours a day, five days a week. Bottom line: Germans work shorter hours but more efficiently.”

Further to the south of Europe, Spanish national Elena (now working in London), says the opposite is true in Spain. “Average working hours are definitely longer in Spain, since management simply expect people to work two or three extra hours every day. All these extra hours are never remunerated or compensated.” She adds, “People do not expect to be paid for that extra time at work and do not complain about it because they fear to lose their job. There might be some companies that pay for the extra work in one way or another, but not the vast majority.”

Working hours in Spain also differ because of the traditional daily schedule in Spain, which is based around taking a long break – a "siesta" – during the middle of the day, to avoid working at the hottest time. Elena says, “Working hours are usually 9am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm or something similar, with a big lunch break in the middle… Not the best way to solve the balance between work and family life!”

Working hours in Australia

In the OECD data set, Australia comes out with average annual working hours a little below the combined OECD average. National employment standards set maximum working hours at 38 hours per week, but with allowances for overtime and ‘reasonable’ additional hours. Paul, from the UK and now working in Australia, says the "9 to 5" expectation remains, but with flexitime increasingly common. “Increasingly it’s okay to do 7 to 3 or 10 to 6. Anybody looking to climb the ladder should expect to do more, probably cover the full range of these times, and CEOs or senior management can expect long days, but it’s about managing adequately rather than being present.” He concludes, “There’s a healthy respect for work/life balance in Australia; flexitime to enable surfing at either end of the day is ok!”

Zain, from Pakistan and currently studying in Melbourne, says he has noticed a difference between working hours in Australia and in his own country. “In Pakistan, the standard practice is 9 to 5, but most businesses operate six days (having Fridays or Saturdays as half days). If employees are working extra hours, which happens quite a lot, they might not get extra payment or compensation. In Australia, although working late hours and weekends is a reality, employees do get compensated if they work more than 40 hours a week.”

Working hours in Asia

Many Asian nations have a reputation for particularly long working hours. East Asian economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea all come out well above the US in average hours worked per year, and in countries such as South Korea and Japan government initiatives have been introduced over the past decade to try and bring working hours down in order to improve employee health and quality of life.

Casey, who has spent time studying and working in Japan, says long working hours are often still the norm. “Although lifetime employment is going by the wayside, it is still somewhat expected. The trade-off is astonishingly long working hours. The word karōshi, or ‘death caused by overwork’, was coined in 1993 to refer to extreme stress caused by working more than 60 hours per week. That said, it is extremely common for full-time workers to average 60 hours a week or more.”

Archana, from India and now based in the UK, says standard working hours in India would be 9am to 6pm, but this can vary a lot, depending not only on the industry, but also on international contracts. In the world’s “outsourcing capital”, she points out, working hours may be tied to other time zones. “You might be working for an UK-based company dealing with a project based in the US, so you are likely to have odd working hours such as 4pm to 12am or 6pm to 2am. In metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad you will find graduates working in the BPO (business process outsourcing) and IT sectors who start working at 2am and finish at 11pm.”

Indeed, she highlights the IT sector as especially prone to long hours. “From experience I can tell you that ideally it is supposed to be eight hours a day, but in practice varies between 10-12 hours or more depending on the project pressure.” Those looking for more flexible and relaxed hours would be better off in sectors such as PR, events and design, while the financial, banking, retail and consultancy industries tend to be more demanding. And, as Zain mentioned in regard to Pakistan, Archana points out that some Indian companies still operate a six-day working week, which is much less common in other parts of the world.

How many hours a week would you expect to work? Which countries have the highest working hour expectations? Find out more with the Trends in International Student Mobility report.

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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