The culture of overworking all around the world

Written By: Florina Laza

From the moment a clock was first used to measure labor in the 18th Century, the time has been understood in collaboration with money. And because the hours became financially quantified, people started to waste, save or use money in a more effective manner. When economies grow, incomes rise and everyone’s time becomes more valuable.

            Working time is a period of time that a person spends in a paid labor. Many countries regulate the work week by law and establish annual holidays, minimum daily rest periods, and a maximum number of working hours per day, week, month and year. And so the last refers to the standard working hours (or normal working hours) that can, also, be found in labor legislation.

            Maximum working hours refers to the maximum working hours of an employee. The employee cannot work more than the level specified in the maximum working hours’ law. The limitations of working hours are internationally proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and European Social Charter.

            Generally speaking, standard working hours in countries worldwide are around 40 to 44 hours per week. But in reality, they start from 26 hours per week in Germany to 112 hours per week in North Korean labor camps. The difference in working hours is determined by many factors, one of them being the contradiction between constantly shifting concepts.

            Some say that we need to work longer hours so that the economy can develop faster and become more productive. But is it really the case? In the academic area, the parallel between work hours and productivity is still a topic of debate and some say increased work hours tend to have an adverse effect. Although technically, for manual labor jobs increased periods of working time may have a good effect on the productivity of the company, many other factors should be taken into consideration, especially when you are using human resources as a method for further development.

               It was reported that those who work less tend to be more productive than those regularly pushing themselves beyond the maximum amount of hours per week point. Also, employees with a more relaxed work program are less likely to get sick and to fail, representing a more secure and efficient workforce.

            However, in countries from Asia or Latin America long hours and unpaid overtime tend to become a custom which is in contrast with westernized countries where work weeks have been getting shorter. This indicates that workers in developing countries work longer than those in developed countries. This difference can be explained by the level of technology production. Studies show that the higher the technology level is, the higher the GDP per capita is, and the less there are of workers who supply labor.

            For example, because the technology was law in the 19th Century, working hours increased significantly during the transition from old to new technologies. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for a large segment of the population to join the workforce. Peasants and rural laborers moved from rural areas to work in urban factories, and working time increased so much that people used to work 3000 hours per year compared to about 1800 hours now. Howsoever, around the turn of the 20th Century working ours started to decline in the newly industrialized countries, mostly due to rising wages as a result of a renewed growing economy.

            Today, a move towards a shorter working week would improve social and economic equality which are considered to be the key ingredients of a long-lasting health economy. And surprisingly enough, the economy would still keep its competitive principles. For example, Germany and the Netherlands have shorter work weeks than Britain and the US, yet their economies are as strong or stronger. In theory, this may sound easy, but in practice, such a change could have major repercussions. So, any move towards a shorter working week would need to be implemented gradually alongside efforts to raise the wage levels across the country.

            But what country is the most overworked? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published every year a report that outlines the average work hours of every country all around the world. In its latest Employment Outlook report, published in 2017, is suggested that the hardest working country of all is Mexico with an average of 2,255 hours a year or a little over 43 hours a week. The second place is occupied by Costa Rica with a total of 2,212 hours per year followed by South Korea with 2,069. The report, also, states that the citizens that enjoy plenty of leisure time are citizens of the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and France.

            Reasons for lowering average work hours and, thus, increasing standards of living are represented by technological developments such as mechanization, robotics and information technology. Also, the increase of woman equally participating in making income as opposed to doing only housework and dropping fertility rated leading to fewer hours needed to be worked to support children had a prominent influence in the process.

            Some experts argue that a four-day week could increase consumption and invigorate the economy. Arguments that support this idea include improvements’ to worker level of education (due to having more time to learn new skills) and improvements’ to workers’ health (less work-related stress and extra time for exercise). Also, reduced work hours minimized the transportation, which in turn helps the environment with less-carbon-related emissions. These benefits increase workforce productivity and the standard of living in a civilized society. On the same note, the New Economic Foundation argues in favor of a 21-hour standard work week in order to resolve the problems with unemployment, high carbon emissions, low well-being, overworking, family care, and the general lack of leisure due to very little free time.

            An interesting case study is the one of Japan’s substantial economic evolution after the WW2. At the end of the Great War, Japan remained deeply affected socially, politically and financially. So, the government had to come up with new methods to support the revival of the society. The country chose to switch its focus from strengthening its military to rebuilding its economy. They implemented the idea that the company you work for is your family and you are required to do everything you can for your family.  On the same note, the prime minister promised that all Japanese could have double income and 100% employment if they commit fully and work hard.

            This plan actually worked and Japan experienced between the 1960s and 1980s an economic miracle becoming the world’s largest economy after the US. But as the economy grew by using massive human resources so did the social pressure and people started to question if it’s all worth it. Thus, the phenomenon didn’t last for long and since the 1990s the economy started to face some substantial economic difficulties continuing to see several recessions ever since, but oddly enough the social culture of overworking yourself to death, called “karoshi”, has continued and permanently marked the Japanese mindsets.

            However, in Japan, the problems are not the regulations for the maximum working hours, but rather the overtime work which they feel compelled to complete. Despite the fact that karoshi culture has existed for decades, the government addressed the issue only after a 24-year-old woman jumped off a building after she logged 105 hours of overtime work. Earlier that day she wrote on a social media platform that she feels “physically and mentally shattered”.

            Japan is only a more extreme example of what’s happening everywhere which is that the salaryman has become a corporate soldier for the good of business conglomerates.

            In India, according to the Factories Act 1948, every adult (at least 18 years of age) cannot work for more than 48 hours in a week and not more than 9 hours in a day and the spread over should not exceed 10-1/2 hours. Also, the overtime is regulated under Sec. 59 of the same Act. It is mentioned that when a worker works in a factory for more than 9 hours in any day or for more than 48 hours in any week, he/she shall, in respect of overtime work, be entitled to receive wages at the rate of twice his/her ordinary rate of wages.

            In practice, the situation is more alarming than it may seem under the legal framework. It was reported that 70% of the Indian millennials expect to work over the age of 70, and 12% say they will likely work until the day they die. The new demands in the work sector to put in long hours of labor and willingly donate their nights, weekends and even vacations without complaining have a serious impact on employees leading to even less productivity.

        Regardless of everything, today time is consumed more carefully than it was a century ago. And this is the result of the new widely accepted social concept of time-is-money. But is it really worth it?

             The fact that the international difference in working hours can be explained by the level of technology development has been proven and it is one of the reasons governments hold those extended working hours as a way to replace what’s missing in the society. But the line can be crossed easily and abuses can become the norm for employers and this is why countries should balance closely the need for further economic evolution with the need of every individual to substantial leisure time in order to reduce stress levels, improve overall well-being, as well as mental and physical health.

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