The UK works some of the longest hours in Europe, but still lags towards the bottom of the productivity scale – this is something that has confused economists and politicians for years.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average hours worked stand at 37 hours per week. This has held steady for the last 10 years. However, productivity (the measure of work output per hour) has continued to drop since 2008. This is trendily known as the “productivity puzzle”.
In Germany the average working week is 40 hours, but Germany has higher productivity. Graphs show that the UK and Germany followed each other upwards from a low-point in 2009, (we assume due to the financial crash). However, despite following the same trend, the UK has consistently lagged behind Germany in productivity.
According to the OECD, this gap has grown since 2015. Germany has continued a smooth upward trend, whereas the UK plateaued in 2015 and bumps along this plateau with barely any growth.
It is impossible to come to any definitive conclusion as to why this trend continues and the gap widens. However, maybe (just maybe) the national attitude to work plays a part.
In Germany, workers tend to be more focused during work hours, partly because it is culturally expected, but also because German workers know when their working day ends – it really does end.
I am trying to avoid generalisations, but German workers have a cultural habit of leaving their work behind at the end of the day. This trait is shared with Scandinavian countries.
It seems to be that grey areas are not tolerated. The national psyche seems to be when I leave work – don’t bother me.
This is taken quite seriously too. Companies such as VW go so far as to turn off work email delivery outside work hours for all employees, except the most senior managers and board members. Furthermore, those with access to work email outside office hours are firmly instructed only to use it when absolutely necessary and not to send emails to subordinates outside hours. This instruction is backed up by an internal disciplinary code.
Compare that to the UK where email can be used as a passive-aggressive weapon, with emails sent by employees at odd hours of the day and night and over weekends – with Sunday afternoon a favourite with aggressive idiots.
We have seen organisation-wide emails sent on behalf of the boss on a Sunday afternoon. Not small organisations either, ones with 1,000s of employees.
In one instance a frustrated junior employee replied with a less-than-cheery “f**k-off”, but replied all – so not only did the boss receive the response, so did the other 15,000 employees on the list. On the plus side it gave some people a good laugh on a wet Sunday afternoon, but less fun for the sender on Monday morning. They kept their job, but their cards were forever marked.
The irony is that someone else on behalf of the boss sent the email. The boss was possibly away enjoying their weekend.
Amusing stories aside – the pressure of constant-on exhausts employees. There is little or no time to escape and recharge depleted batteries. Employees end up starting the working week already warmed up due to the constant stream of nonsense emails from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.
A recent study by the University of the West of England found that Wi-Fi introduced on some train routes had led to more people answering emails before and after work. Interestingly, many people welcomed this as a need transition period to and from work and to avoid work overload on reaching their workplaces.
Sadly, some people referred to time on the train as “dead time”. We would kindly refer these people to a good book, a good newspaper, a good magazine, some nice music, the crossword, chatting or even just looking out the window.
To paraphrase the saying – if you always use the saw and don’t stop to sharpen it, it becomes too blunt to use.
It’s almost 4pm on a sunny and warm late August day. I have focussed on writing this for a clear 90 minutes. Time to go and enjoy the world.
Before I do, I will leave you with a picture of the ultimate symbol of power and status, not a car or plane or another toy – no – the smartphone-free life. Ask Simon Cowell. If anyone is in touch with symbols of status and power, it is he.
Relevant links below, but please go read a good book instead.
UK Average Hours
German Average Hours
OECD – Productivity – measured by GDP per hour worked