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Working Around the Globe: How the United States Compares to Other Countries

Working Around the Globe“Working hard or hardly working?”

Everyone’s heard the age-old expression at some point or another, whether it be a friendly jibe from a colleague or an in-passing barb from one of your bosses. You’ve probably used the phrase yourself once or twice around the old water cooler.

More often than not, the jest requires little more than a nod and conspiratorial wink, but is there an answer to this age-old inter-office ice breaker?
While Americans bemoan their hectic workweeks, there are serious variations among the working environments, benefits, and overall productivity and contentment in the workplace of other countries.  It begs the question, “Are we putting too much emphasis on time punches and daily reports?”

In the next few sections we’ll explore how the average American workweek compares to some of the seemingly laziest (Germany and Sweden) and craziest (South Korea) work cultures throughout the world.

globe workersAverage Workweeks at a Glance: U.S. in the Middle, South Korea on Top

It may surprise you to learn that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found the U.S.’s respectable 34.4-hour average workweek doesn’t even rank top ten for longest average weekly hours.

Comparatively, Korea boasts a hefty 40.6-hour work week, with Sweden and Germany logging 31.0- and 26.4-hour workweeks, respectively. What’s more, the work days tend to be far more productive for our European counterparts despite the wide gap in working hours.

Working Smarter Not Harder: Europeans Excel in Productivity

Though the average work day in the U.S. is around 8 hours, it wouldn’t be complete without checking Facebook, lingering at the coffee pot or eavesdropping on the latest gossip from HR.

As stated in an article from Fortune‘s online publication, between time spent on private emails, online shopping, social media and simply socializing with coworkers, we’re left with about 6 hours of work.

monitorsThis is one area where Sweden and Germany are kicking our corporate behinds and putting a monopoly on productivity. By putting far more emphasis on a focused and efficient work environment, Germany and Sweden businesses can justify shorter, more pleasant work days. pointed out that Germany goes so far as to institute a “zero tolerance policy” for non-work related activities, putting the kibosh on Facebook rants and those hilarious chain emails we love to read.

This article from not only attests to an increase in productivity from Sweden’s 6-hour work day, but highlights the benefits to be had in the overall health and mental wellbeing of employees.

South Korea’s business culture is a very different animal. Citizens’ work atmosphere is often based more on the boss’ approval than the quality or quantity of the work itself.

While an insatiable work ethic is indisputably vital in Korean work culture, the best way to keep pace and move up is to stay in the good graces of the supervisor in power, even if it often means forgoing family time in favor of not leaving before the boss does. Employees often work more than five days to keep the higher-ups happy.

That being said, a Forbes article titled, “The World’s Hardest-Working Country,” pointed out that South Korea has been making an effort since 2008 to relieve some of that pressure by trying to implement a 5-day work week.

The Benefits: Both on and Off the Clock

Vacation time and true off-the-clock living vary from country to country.


Though Koreans put in more hours than the United States, Sweden and Germany, they only get an average of 10 vacation days per year.

United States

America’s dependency on smartphones makes it very easy for employers to keep tabs on workers who are off, resulting in a workweek that bleeds into home life through after-hours calls, texts, and emails. Many employees find themselves without enough health, vacation or family leave to offset the added stress, so says an article from Fast Company.
Germany has the right idea in combating this disruption, toying with an idea banning after-hours contact. This extra consideration aside, Germany sets the bar high with their vacation policies, taking a very liberal approach to the “work hard, play hard” concept.

Businesses are obligated to offer at least 20 paid vacation days, and citizens still enjoy between 25-30 days a year, even without ample holidays and some of the most extensive policies on maternity/paternity leave.


The European Union also recognizes Sweden’s talent for reconciling work and family life through generous leave plans and sparing no expense for family benefits. One thing is very clear from our European neighbors: Less really is more when it comes to finding a healthy balance between the workplace and home.


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