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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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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Which risks are top of mind in 2021? We visualize the World Economic Forum’s risk assessment for top global risks by impact and livelihood.

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Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond

Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.

Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.

Which risks are top of mind in 2021?

The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact

According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:

  • 🔵 Economic
  • 🟢 Environmental
  • 🟠 Geopolitical
  • 🔴 Societal
  • 🟣 Technological

It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.

That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.

Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.

RankTop Risks by LikelihoodTop Risks by Impact
#1🟢Extreme weather🔴Infectious diseases
#2🟢Climate action failure🟢Climate action failure
#3🟢Human environmental damage🟠Weapons of mass destruction
#4🔴Infectious diseases🟢Biodiversity loss
#5🟢Biodiversity loss🟢Natural resource crises
#6🟣Digital power concentration🟢Human environmental damage
#7🟣Digital inequality🔴Livelihood crises
#8🟠Interstate relations fracture🟢Extreme weather
#9🟣Cybersecurity failure🔵Debt crises
#10🔴Livelihood crises🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown

As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.

New Risks in 2021

While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.

Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:

Societal Risks

COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.

At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.

Economic Risks

As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.

With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.

Technological Risks

Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.

Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.

Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon

Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.

In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.

RankRisk%Time Horizon
#1🟠Weapons of mass destruction62.7Long-term (5-10 years)
#2🔴Infectious diseases58Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#3🔴Livelihood crises55.1Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#4🔵Asset bubble burst53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#5🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown53.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#6🔵Price instability52.9Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#7🟢Extreme weather events52.7Short-term risks (0-2 years)
#8🔵Commodity shocks52.7Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#9🔵Debt crises52.3Medium-term risks (3-5 years)
#10🟠State collapse51.8Long-term (5-10 years)

Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.

It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.

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Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are 510 million km² of area on the Earth, but less than 30% of this is land. Here’s the share countries make up of the Earth’s surface.

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countries by share of earth's surface

Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are over 510 million square kilometers of area on the surface of Earth, but less than 30% of this is covered by land. The rest is water, in the form of vast oceans.

Today’s visualization uses data primarily from the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) to rank the world’s countries by their share of Earth’s surface.

Breakdown of Countries Share of Earth’s Surface

The largest countries by surface area are Russia (3.35%), Canada (1.96%), and China (1.88%).

Together they occupy roughly 7.2% of Earth’s surface. Russia is so big that even if we divided the country between its Asian and European sections, those new regions would still be the largest in their respective continents.

Country / DependencyTotal in km² (mi²)Percentage of Earth's Surface
Russia17,098,246 (6,601,670)3.352%
Antarctica14,000,000 (5,400,000)2.745%
Canada9,984,670 (3,855,100)1.958%
China9,596,961 (3,705,407)1.881%
United States9,525,067 (3,677,649)1.867%
Brazil8,515,767 (3,287,956)1.670%
Australia7,692,024 (2,969,907)1.508%
India3,287,263 (1,269,219)0.644%
Argentina2,780,400 (1,073,500)0.545%
Kazakhstan2,724,900 (1,052,100)0.534%
Algeria2,381,741 (919,595)0.467%
D.R. Congo2,344,858 (905,355)0.460%
Greenland (Denmark)2,166,086 (836,330)0.425%
Saudi Arabia2,149,690 (830,000)0.421%
Mexico1,964,375 (758,449)0.385%
Indonesia1,910,931 (737,815)0.375%
Sudan1,861,484 (718,723)0.365%
Libya1,759,540 (679,360)0.345%
Iran1,648,195 (636,372)0.323%
Mongolia1,564,110 (603,910)0.307%
Peru1,285,216 (496,225)0.252%
Chad1,284,000 (496,000)0.252%
Niger1,267,000 (489,000)0.248%
Angola1,246,700 (481,400)0.244%
Mali1,240,192 (478,841)0.243%
South Africa1,221,037 (471,445)0.239%
Colombia1,141,748 (440,831)0.224%
Ethiopia1,104,300 (426,400)0.216%
Bolivia1,098,581 (424,164)0.215%
Mauritania1,030,700 (398,000)0.202%
Egypt1,002,450 (387,050)0.197%
Tanzania945,087 (364,900)0.185%
Nigeria923,768 (356,669)0.181%
Venezuela916,445 (353,841)0.180%
Pakistan907,843 (350,520)0.178%
Namibia825,615 (318,772)0.162%
Mozambique801,590 (309,500)0.157%
Turkey783,562 (302,535)0.154%
Chile756,102 (291,933)0.148%
Zambia752,612 (290,585)0.148%
Myanmar676,578 (261,228)0.133%
Afghanistan652,230 (251,830)0.128%
South Sudan644,329 (248,777)0.126%
Somalia637,657 (246,201)0.125%
Central African Republic622,984 (240,535)0.122%
Ukraine603,500 (233,000)0.118%
Madagascar587,041 (226,658)0.115%
Botswana581,730 (224,610)0.114%
Kenya580,367 (224,081)0.114%
France543,940 (210,020)0.107%
Yemen527,968 (203,850)0.104%
Thailand513,120 (198,120)0.101%
Spain505,992 (195,365)0.099%
Turkmenistan488,100 (188,500)0.096%
Cameroon475,442 (183,569)0.093%
Papua New Guinea462,840 (178,700)0.091%
Sweden450,295 (173,860)0.088%
Uzbekistan447,400 (172,700)0.088%
Morocco446,550 (172,410)0.088%
Iraq438,317 (169,235)0.086%
Paraguay406,752 (157,048)0.080%
Zimbabwe390,757 (150,872)0.077%
Norway385,207 (148,729)0.076%
Japan377,976 (145,937)0.074%
Germany357,114 (137,882)0.070%
Republic of the Congo342,000 (132,000)0.067%
Finland338,424 (130,666)0.066%
Vietnam331,212 (127,882)0.065%
Malaysia330,803 (127,724)0.065%
Ivory Coast322,463 (124,504)0.063%
Poland312,696 (120,733)0.061%
Oman309,500 (119,500)0.061%
Italy301,339 (116,348)0.059%
Philippines300,000 (120,000)0.059%
Ecuador276,841 (106,889)0.054%
Burkina Faso274,222 (105,878)0.054%
New Zealand270,467 (104,428)0.053%
Gabon267,668 (103,347)0.052%
Guinea245,857 (94,926)0.048%
United Kingdom242,495 (93,628)0.048%
Uganda241,550 (93,260)0.047%
Ghana238,533 (92,098)0.047%
Romania238,397 (92,046)0.047%
Laos236,800 (91,400)0.046%
Guyana214,969 (83,000)0.042%
Belarus207,600 (80,200)0.041%
Kyrgyzstan199,951 (77,202)0.039%
Senegal196,722 (75,955)0.039%
Syria185,180 (71,500)0.036%
Cambodia181,035 (69,898)0.035%
Uruguay176,215 (68,037)0.035%
Somaliland176,120 (68,000)0.035%
Suriname163,820 (63,250)0.032%
Tunisia163,610 (63,170)0.032%
Bangladesh148,460 (57,320)0.029%
Nepal147,181 (56,827)0.029%
Tajikistan143,100 (55,300)0.028%
Greece131,957 (50,949)0.026%
Nicaragua130,373 (50,337)0.026%
North Korea120,540 (46,540)0.024%
Malawi118,484 (45,747)0.023%
Eritrea117,600 (45,400)0.023%
Benin114,763 (44,310)0.022%
Honduras112,492 (43,433)0.022%
Liberia111,369 (43,000)0.022%
Bulgaria111,002 (42,858)0.022%
Cuba109,884 (42,426)0.022%
Guatemala108,889 (42,042)0.021%
Iceland103,000 (40,000)0.020%
South Korea100,210 (38,690)0.020%
Hungary93,028 (35,918)0.018%
Portugal92,226 (35,609)0.018%
Jordan89,342 (34,495)0.018%
Serbia88,361 (34,116)0.017%
Azerbaijan86,600 (33,400)0.017%
Austria83,871 (32,383)0.016%
United Arab Emirates83,600 (32,300)0.016%
Czech Republic78,865 (30,450)0.015%
Panama75,417 (29,119)0.015%
Sierra Leone71,740 (27,700)0.014%
Ireland70,273 (27,133)0.014%
Georgia69,700 (26,900)0.014%
Sri Lanka65,610 (25,330)0.013%
Lithuania65,300 (25,200)0.013%
Latvia64,559 (24,926)0.013%
Togo56,785 (21,925)0.011%
Croatia56,594 (21,851)0.011%
Bosnia and Herzegovina51,209 (19,772)0.010%
Costa Rica51,100 (19,700)0.010%
Slovakia49,037 (18,933)0.010%
Dominican Republic48,671 (18,792)0.010%
Estonia45,227 (17,462)0.009%
Denmark43,094 (16,639)0.008%
Netherlands41,850 (16,160)0.008%
Switzerland41,284 (15,940)0.008%
Bhutan38,394 (14,824)0.008%
Taiwan36,193 (13,974)0.007%
Guinea-Bissau36,125 (13,948)0.007%
Moldova33,846 (13,068)0.007%
Belgium30,528 (11,787)0.006%
Lesotho30,355 (11,720)0.006%
Armenia29,743 (11,484)0.006%
Solomon Islands28,896 (11,157)0.006%
Albania28,748 (11,100)0.006%
Equatorial Guinea28,051 (10,831)0.005%
Burundi27,834 (10,747)0.005%
Haiti27,750 (10,710)0.005%
Rwanda26,338 (10,169)0.005%
North Macedonia25,713 (9,928)0.005%
Djibouti23,200 (9,000)0.005%
Belize22,966 (8,867)0.005%
El Salvador21,041 (8,124)0.004%
Israel20,770 (8,020)0.004%
Slovenia20,273 (7,827)0.004%
Fiji18,272 (7,055)0.004%
Kuwait17,818 (6,880)0.003%
Eswatini17,364 (6,704)0.003%
East Timor14,919 (5,760)0.003%
The Bahamas13,943 (5,383)0.003%
Montenegro13,812 (5,333)0.003%
Vanuatu12,189 (4,706)0.002%
Qatar11,586 (4,473)0.002%
The Gambia11,295 (4,361)0.002%
Jamaica10,991 (4,244)0.002%
Kosovo10,887 (4,203)0.002%
Lebanon10,452 (4,036)0.002%
Cyprus9,251 (3,572)0.002%
State of Palestine6,020 (2,320)0.001%
Brunei5,765 (2,226)0.001%
Trinidad and Tobago5,130 (1,980)0.001%
Cape Verde4,033 (1,557)0.001%
Samoa2,842 (1,097)0.001%
Luxembourg2,586 (998)0.001%
Mauritius2,040 (790)0.000%
Comoros1,862 (719)0.000%
São Tomé and Príncipe964 (372)0.000%
Kiribati811 (313)0.000%
Bahrain778 (300)0.000%
Dominica751 (290)0.000%
Tonga747 (288)0.000%
Singapore728 (281)0.000%
Federated States of Micronesia702 (271)0.000%
Saint Lucia616 (238)0.000%
Andorra468 (181)0.000%
Palau459 (177)0.000%
Seychelles452 (175)0.000%
Antigua and Barbuda442 (171)0.000%
Barbados430 (170)0.000%
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines389 (150)0.000%
Grenada344 (133)0.000%
Malta316 (122)0.000%
Maldives300 (120)0.000%
Saint Kitts and Nevis261 (101)0.000%
Marshall Islands181 (70)0.000%
Liechtenstein160 (62)0.000%
San Marino61 (24)0.000%
Tuvalu26 (10)0.000%
Nauru21 (8.1)0.000%
Monaco2.02 (0.78)0.000%
Vatican City0.49 (0.19)0.000%

Antarctica, although not a country, covers the second largest amount of land overall at 2.75%. Meanwhile, the other nations that surpass the 1% mark for surface area include the United States (1.87%), Brazil (1.67%), and Australia (1.51%).

The remaining 195 countries and regions below 1%, combined, account for the other half of Earth’s land surface. Among the world’s smallest countries are the island nations of the Caribbean and the South Pacific Ocean. However, the tiniest of the tiny are Vatican City and Monaco, which combine for a total area of just 2.51 km².

The remaining 70% of Earth’s surface is water: 27% territorial waters and 43% international waters or areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

In the past, nations adhered to the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine, a 17th century principle that limited jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow area along a nation’s coastline. The rest of the seas did not belong to any nation and were free for countries to travel and exploit.

This situation lasted into the 20th century, but by mid-century there was an effort to extend national claims as competition for offshore resources became increasingly fierce and ocean pollution became an issue.

In 1982, the United Nations adopted the Law of the Sea Convention which extended international law over the extra-territorial waters. The convention established freedom-of-navigation rights and set territorial sea boundaries 12 miles (19 km) offshore with exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles (322 km) offshore, extending a country’s influence over maritime resources.

Does Size Matter?

The size of countries is the outcome of politics, economics, history, and geography. Put simply, borders can change over time.

In 1946, there were 76 independent countries in the world, and today there are 195. There are forces that push together or pull apart landscapes over time. While physical geography plays a role in the identity of nations, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of UAE, a tiny Gulf nation, put it best:

“A country is not measured by the size of its area on the map. A country is truly measured by its heritage and culture.”

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