Some countries are more productive than others, but research shows employees in these markets do not log more hours each week—they work more efficiently.
Data from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), an intergovernmental assembly of 37 countries, reveals a connection between how much a country works and its GDP (gross domestic product) per capita. The surprising takeaway? Many of the world’s most productive workforces work fewer hours per week than their counterparts.
This finding underscores how a healthy work-life balance helps employees increase productivity. In fact, a survey from the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80% of Fortune 500 companies, shows that employees with a good work-life balance work 21% harder than their peers.
In this post, we’ll review five countries that lead the way in work-life balance and worker productivity, according to OECD, and three strategies business leaders can implement to boost employee efficiency.
Workers in Denmark averaged just over 29 hours per week of work in 2019–the lowest weekly average of any OECD member country. At the same time, Denmark recorded the OECD’s 9th highest GDP per capita.
Denmark’s worker efficiency stems from both cultural norms and legislation. The country has an official 37-hour workweek, though many workers log fewer weekly hours. Workers in Denmark commonly leave the office by 4PM daily, and nearly all offices empty after 5PM.
Danish companies and their employees also prioritize time off. The majority of the country’s offices close during the last two weeks of July so Danes can take a vacation. This time off is part of the five weeks of vacation Denmark’s government guarantees every Danish worker—more than double the two weeks of vacation that some American employers grant their workers.
Like Denmark, Norway is a world leader in both worker productivity and work-life balance. Among OECD countries, only Denmark logs fewer working hours per year than Norway. Norwegian employees average fewer than 30 hours of work per week when accounting for the five weeks of paid vacation guaranteed to every worker. Despite working fewer hours, Norway’s 2019 GDP per capita was the fifth-highest among OECD companies.
In Norway, workers commonly leave the office early on Friday afternoons to take weekend trips to their hyttes or countryside cabins. Like in Denmark, government legislation backs up Norway’s healthy work-life culture. Norwegian employees have the right to implement flexible working hours at their convenience, as long as their schedules present no material disadvantage to the employer. Additionally, Norwegian workers over the age of 62 have the right to reduce their working hours to maintain personal wellbeing.
As in Denmark and Norway, workers in the Netherlands averaged under 30 hours of work per week in 2019—good for the fourth-lowest total of all OECD countries. The country remains exceptionally productive, though, ranking 10th in GDP per capita in 2019.
Workers in the Netherlands rarely work “very long hours,” which the OECD defines as a workweek exceeding 50 hours. According to the OECD, just 0.4% of Dutch employees log these work-heavy weeks annually—well below the international average of 11%.
Dutch workers’ discipline and efficiency is the reason behind this low percentage of overtime hours. They value punctuality and adherence to schedules, and they are extremely focused at work, so they get more done in less time. Most workers avoid social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, at work. A strict delineation between work and play holds up on both sides of the equation. After work hours and on weekends, the Dutch rarely check their email or complete work tasks.
These elements contribute to a culture that measures employees based on their output rather than their input. In other words, Dutch employers evaluate employees on the quality of their work rather than the number of hours they put in at the office.
Employees in Luxembourg average just over 30 hours of work every week. This is the ninth-lowest weekly average among OECD countries, and Luxembourg ranked first in GDP per capita in 2019.
Like in The Netherlands, workers in Luxembourg place a high emphasis on speed and efficiency. Luxembourgers make meetings quick and to-the-point by prioritizing clear and direct communication. Like in the Netherlands, Luxembourgers observe a careful separation of work life and home life. Luxembourgers maintain formality with their co-workers, choosing to interact over business concerns rather than social or personal matters. By adopting a laser-like focus at work, Luxembourgers maximize productivity without maximizing hours.
Switzerland ranks 11th among OECD countries in terms of hours worked per week. In 2019, Swiss workers put in an average of 32.4 weekly hours. At the same time, Switzerland ranks fourth out of OEDP countries in worker productivity.
Swiss workers hyper-schedule their days and emphasize being on-time and efficient. Their strict adherence to timelines extends beyond the office. Most Swiss workers take lunch promptly at noon every day. Unlike in countries such as the United States, Swiss workers do not eat lunch at their desks. Instead, they leave the office for lunch breaks that commonly stretch up to one-and-a-half hours.
In Switzerland, workers value versatile work schedules. It is common for workers to adopt 60% or 80% workloads, meaning they work three or four days per week instead of five. For example, a couple that wants to have multiple days off to care for a child could each adopt an 80% work schedule, giving themselves two collective days off per week. This flexible system is a testament to a culture that prioritizes work-life balance while remaining highly productive.
Three Steps to Improve Your Company’s Work-Life Balance
Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland prove that an optimal work-life balance does not have to come at the cost of high productivity. When employees are happier at work, they accomplish more. And when employees take the right amount of time off, they increase their efficiency and productivity.
HR leaders help their workers optimize productivity when they foster a workplace culture that encourages work-life balance and allow employees to take time off to rest and recharge. By offering benefits and policies that appeal to employees, these HR leaders also increase their ability to attract and retain top talent. Companies seeking to increase employee productivity and overall happiness should take these three steps today:
1. Encourage employees to sign off after business hours
COVID-19 restrictions made working from home increasingly common, and remote work tends to blur the lines between work time and personal time. A recent study found that Europeans who work from home are twice as likely to log more than 48 hours per week—and six times more likely to work during their free time. Further research by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation reveals that the average British worker logs an extra 28 hours of monthly overtime during the pandemic.
Much of this increased workload is due to employees feeling unable to disconnect from work, as they once did when leaving the physical office. To counter these excess hours, which can decrease employee productivity and lead to burnout, HR should encourage workers to disconnect from email, messaging, and other work responsibilities outside of normal working hours.
2. Incentivize employees to use their vacation time
Americans left 768 million days of paid time off unused last year, according to research by the U.S. Travel Association. The study found that 55 percent of Americans did not use all of their paid vacation time. HR should help employees overcome this trend by tracking their vacation usage regularly—and alerting employees when they are at risk of leaving vacation time unused. Additionally, HR should create a culture where employees feel supported and encouraged to take time off for their own health and wellbeing.
3. Set project-based time expectations—and track results
Following the countries’ model in this report, HR teams need structures that encourage employees to work efficiently and with focus. By tracking employee productivity and collecting data on how long projects take, HR gains insight into employees’ workloads. This information empowers HR to make educated decisions about project distribution and employee bandwidth.
How The U.S. Can Learn From Worldwide Leaders
The United States is notorious for its work-centric culture, and the statistics back up this reputation. U.S. workers log the 10th most hours of OECD nations across the world, following in the footsteps of countries like Russia, Korea, and Mexico. To reverse the trend, U.S companies should follow the lead of nations that remain highly productive while maintaining employee-friendly policies—increasing their revenue and employee happiness along the way.
Velocity Global manages our own global workforce that expands over five continents, and we help businesses like you do the same. Our experts are well-versed in local work culture in over 185 markets, so reach out today to find out how we can help you create a benefits package and company culture that will attract and retain top talent.