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Can a Shorter Workweek Make People Happier?

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Can A Shorter Workweek Make People Happier?

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Can A Shorter Workweek Make People Happier?

For many people, the concept of a shorter workweek is enticing. After all, it can be difficult to find enough time for the things we love.

Is it reasonable then, in our quest for happiness, to begin working less? Advocates of a shorter workweek would agree, but these policies have yet to be widely-adopted.

Today’s chart plots data from the World Happiness Report 2019 and the OECD to determine if there’s any correlation between a country’s happiness and average hours worked per person.

What Happens When We Work Too Much?

The unhealthy side effects of working long hours are well established. In extreme cases, however, symptoms can extend beyond the usual stress and fatigue.

For example, the American Heart Association found that people under the age of 50 had a higher risk of stroke when working over 10 hours a day for a decade or more. Another study, conducted across 14 countries, concluded that people who worked long hours were 12% more likely to become excessive drinkers.

If working longer days is so harmful to our well-being, what happens if we work fewer hours instead?

Comparing the Numbers

The tables below list the happiest countries as well as the unhappiest countries in the OECD; happiness scores range from 0 to 10, with a 10 representing the best life possible.

Based on the data, there appears to be some degree of correlation between a person’s happiness and the amount of hours they work.

Here’s how the five happiest countries stack up:

CountryHappiness Score (0-10)5-Yr Average Annual
Hours Worked
Difference in Hours Worked
from OECD Average (1,682 hrs) 
🇫🇮 Finland7.7691,559 hrs-123 hrs
🇩🇰 Denmark7.6001,406 hrs-276 hrs
🇳🇴 Norway7.5541,422 hrs-260 hrs
🇮🇸 Iceland7.4941,491 hrs-191 hrs
🇳🇱 Netherlands7.4881,432 hrs-250 hrs

The five happiest countries each work over 100 hours less than the OECD average. Compare this to the five least happiest countries:

CountryHappiness Score (0-10)5-Yr Average Annual
Hours Worked
Difference in Hours Worked
from OECD Average (1,682 hrs) 
🇬🇷 Greece5.2871,946 hrs+264 hrs
🇹🇷 Turkey5.3731,832 hrs+150 hrs
🇵🇹 Portugal5.6931,722 hrs+40 hrs
🇭🇺 Hungary5.7581,749 hrs+67 hrs
🇯🇵 Japan5.8861,710 hrs*+28 hrs

*OECD data includes full- and part-time workers. While this affects the entire data set, Japan’s high share of part-time workers (37% as of 2017) suggests it is particularly vulnerable to underestimation.

Coincidentally, all five of the least happiest countries work more hours than the OECD average, up to over 264 hours in the case of Greece.

Happiness is multifaceted, though, and we should avoid drawing conclusions from a single variable. For instance, the World Happiness Report 2019 calculates happiness scores based on eight distinct metrics:

 MetricDescription
#1Positive AffectThe average of 3 measures: happiness, laughter, and enjoyment
#2Negative AffectThe average of 3 measures: worry, sadness, and anger
#3Social SupportHaving someone to count on in times of trouble
#4FreedomThe ability to make life choices
#5CorruptionThe perception of corruption throughout business and government
#6GenerosityBased on survey results about charity donations
#7GDP per Capita (Log Scale)Economic output per person
#8Healthy Life ExpectancyYears spent in good health

With these in mind, we can make a few additional observations.

Four of the five happiest OECD countries are located in the Nordics, a region known for low corruption rates and robust social safety nets. On the other end of the scale, economic hardship is a recurring theme among the OECD’s least happiest countries. The falling Turkish lira and Greece’s debt crisis are two significant examples.

To properly measure the happiness-boosting potential of a shortened workweek, it seems we need to isolate its effects.

Challenging the Status Quo

Employers are now experimenting with shorter work schedules to see if happier employees are in fact better employees.

Case 1: Successful Trial

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based estate planning firm, trialed a four-day workweek for two months with no changes to compensation.

The trial was hailed as a success. Employee stress levels fell by 7 percentage points while overall life satisfaction rose by 5 percentage points. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that productivity remained the same.

Employees designed a number of innovations and initiatives to work in a more productive and efficient manner.

– Helen Delaney, University of Auckland

Following the trial, the firm’s founder expressed interest in implementing the four-day workweek on a permanent basis.

Case 2: Successful Trial with Trade-offs

Filimundus, a Sweden-based software studio, trialed a six-hour workday in 2014. Staff reception was positive, and the company has since adopted it permanently.

There were trade-offs, however. While staff enjoyed more time for their private lives, productivity across different departments saw mixed results.

We did see some decrease in production for some staff, mostly our artists, but an increase in production for our programmers. So money-wise, in costs, it evened out.

– Linus Feldt, CEO

Interestingly, the studio also trialed a seven-hour workday, and saw no positive effects.

Case 3: An Unsustainable Solution

Public healthcare workers in Gothenburg, Sweden, trialed a six-hour workday for two years. Similar to the first case, compensation was unchanged.

While the trial achieved good results—staff experienced lower stress levels and patients received a higher level of care—the policy was unsustainable.

It’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.

– Daniel Bernmar

17 additional staff were hired to compensate for the shorter workdays, increasing the local government’s payroll by $738,000. The city council did note, however, that lower unemployment costs offset this increase by approximately 10%.

Picking Up Momentum

These experiments are garnering attention from around the world.

Even Japan, a country known for its “overtime culture”, is getting in on the action. Microsoft offices in the East Asian country tested a four-day workweek in August 2019, and reported happier staff, as well as an impressive 40% boost in productivity.

While the results of these early experiments are indeed promising, they’ve exposed the nuances that exist between industries and job types, and the need for further trials. One thing is certain though—shorter workweek policies should not be interpreted as a “one size fits all” solution for happier lives.

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Misc

A Visual Guide to Human Emotion

For years, humans have attempted to categorize and codify human emotion. Here are those attempts, visualized.

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visual guide to human emotions wheel

A Visual Guide to Human Emotion

Despite vast differences in culture around the world, humanity’s DNA is 99.9% similar.

There are few attributes more central and universal to the human experience than our emotions. Of course, the broad spectrum of emotions we’re capable of experiencing can be difficult to articulate. That’s where this brilliant visualization by the Junto Institute comes in.

This circular visualization is the latest in an ongoing attempt to neatly categorize the full range of emotions in a logical way.

A Taxonomy of Human Emotion

Our understanding has come a long way since William James proposed four basic emotions – fear, grief, love, and rage—though these core emotions still form much of the foundation for current frameworks.

The wheel visualization above identifies six root emotions:

  1. Fear
  2. Anger
  3. Sadness
  4. Surprise
  5. Joy
  6. Love

From these six emotions, more nuanced descriptions emerge, such as jealousy as a subset of anger, and awe-struck as a subset of surprise. In total, there are 102 second- and third-order emotions listed on this emotion wheel.

Reinventing the Feeling Wheel

The concept of mapping the range of human emotions on a wheel picked up traction in the 1980s, and has evolved ever since.

One of these original concepts was developed by American psychologist Robert Plutchik, who mapped eight primary emotions—anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. These “high survival value” emotions were believed to be the most useful in keeping our ancient ancestors alive.

plutchik emotion wheel

Another seminal graphic concept was developed by author Dr. Gloria Willcox. This version of the emotions wheel has spawned dozens of similar designs, as people continue to try to improve on the concept.

willcox feelings wheel

Further Exploration

The more we research human emotion, the more nuanced our understanding becomes in terms of how we react to the world around us.

Researchers at UC Berkeley used 2,185 short video clips to elicit emotions from study participants. Study participants rated the videos using 27 dimensions of self-reported emotional experience, and the results were mapped in an incredible interactive visualization. It is interesting to note that some video clips garnered a wide array of responses, while other clips elicit a near unanimous emotional response.

Here are some example videos and the distribution of responses:

reported emotional reaction to video clips

The data visualization clusters these types of videos together, giving us a unique perspective on how people respond to certain types of stimuli.

Much like emotion itself, our desire to understand and classify the world around us is powerful and uniquely human.

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Markets

Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Ocean shipping is the primary mode of international trade. This map identifies maritime choke points that pose a risk to this complex logistic network.

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maritime choke points

Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Maritime transport is an essential part of international trade—approximately 80% of global merchandise is shipped via sea.

Because of its importance, commercial shipping relies on strategic trade routes to move goods efficiently. These waterways are used by thousands of vessels a year—but it’s not always smooth sailing. In fact, there are certain points along these routes that pose a risk to the whole system.

Here’s a look at the world’s most vulnerable maritime bottlenecks—also known as choke points—as identified by GIS.

What’s a Choke Point?

Choke points are strategic, narrow passages that connect two larger areas to one another. When it comes to maritime trade, these are typically straits or canals that see high volumes of traffic because of their optimal location.

Despite their convenience, these vital points pose several risks:

  • Structural risks: As demonstrated in the recent Suez Canal blockage, ships can crash along the shore of a canal if the passage is too narrow, causing traffic jams that can last for days.
  • Geopolitical risks: Because of their high traffic, choke points are particularly vulnerable to blockades or deliberate disruptions during times of political unrest.

The type and degree of risk varies, depending on location. Here’s a look at some of the biggest threats, at eight of the world’s major choke points.

maritime choke point risks

Because of their high risk, alternatives for some of these key routes have been proposed in the past—for instance, in 2013 Nicaraguan Congress approved a $40 billion dollar project proposal to build a canal that was meant to rival the Panama Canal.

As of today, it has yet to materialize.

A Closer Look: Key Maritime Choke Points

Despite their vulnerabilities, these choke points remain critical waterways that facilitate international trade. Below, we dive into a few of the key areas to provide some context on just how important they are to global trade.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a lock-type canal that provides a shortcut for ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Ships sailing between the east and west coasts of the U.S. save over 8,000 nautical miles by using the canal—which roughly shortens their trip by 21 days.

In 2019, 252 million long tons of goods were transported through the Panama Canal, which generated over $2.6 billion in tolls.

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is an Egyptian waterway that connects Europe to Asia. Without this route, ships would need to sail around Africa, which would add approximately seven days to their trips. In 2019, nearly 19,000 vessels, and 1 billion tons of cargo, traveled through the Suez Canal.

In an effort to mitigate risk, the Egyptian government embarked on a major expansion project for the canal back in 2015. But, given the recent blockage caused by a Taiwanese container ship, it’s clear that the waterway is still vulnerable to obstruction.

The Strait of Malacca

At its smallest point, the Strait of Malacca is approximately 1.5 nautical miles, making it one of the world’s narrowest choke points. Despite its size, it’s one of Asia’s most critical waterways, since it provides a critical connection between China, India, and Southeast Asia. This choke point creates a risky situation for the 130,000 or so ships that visit the Port of Singapore each year.

The area is also known to have problems with piracy—in 2019, there were 30 piracy incidents, according to private information group ReCAAP ISC.

The Strait of Hormuz

Controlled by Iran, the Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, ultimately draining into the Arabian Sea. It’s a primary vein for the world’s oil supply, transporting approximately 21 million barrels per day.

Historically, it’s also been a site of regional conflict. For instance, tankers and commercial ships were attacked in that area during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is another primary waterway for the world’s oil and natural gas. Nestled between Africa and the Middle East, the critical route connects the Mediterranean Sea (via the Suez Canal) to the Indian Ocean.

Like the Strait of Malacca, it’s well known as a high-risk area for pirate attacks. In May 2020, a UK chemical tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen–the ninth pirate attack in the area that year.

Due to the strategic nature of the region, there is a strong military presence in nearby Djibouti, including China’s first ever foreign military base.

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