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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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Science

Visualizing the Average Lifespans of Mammals

While smaller animals such as weasels typically live 1-2 years, larger counterparts can thrive for decades.

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Infographic depicting the average lifespans of diverse mammals.

Visualizing the Average Lifespans of Mammals

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Mammals, though comprising a small fraction of Earth’s creatures, hold vital ecological roles globally. They are crucial for maintaining ecosystem health through services like pollination, seed dispersal, and predator-prey dynamics.

In this visualization, we depict the average lifespans of mammals, using data from Discover Wildlife and the United Nations.

Human Lifespans on the Rise

Defined as warm-blooded creatures with hair or fur, mammals nurse their young with milk from mammary glands. While smaller animals such as weasels typically live 1-2 years, larger counterparts like elephants can thrive for decades, and bowhead whales can live for 200 years, or even longer.

AnimalAverage lifespan (years)
Weasel1 to 2
Hedgehog3
Wolverine12
Tiger14
Brown bear25
Lowland tapir30
Western gorilla35
Brandt's bat41
Humans (1950)47
Elephant56
Humans (2022)72
Bowhead whale200

Notably, human lifespans have experienced a remarkable surge. According to the UN Population Division, the global average life expectancy has surged from 47 years in 1950 to 72 years in 2022, marking a 25-year increase. This is attributed to advancements in nutrition, medication, and essential resources.

However, as human longevity flourishes, it can have an adverse effect on wildlife mammal populations. To put this into numbers, over the past 100,000 years, the surge in human population has precipitated an 85% reduction in wild mammal biomass.

Today, livestock dominates 62% of the world’s mammal biomass, with humans accounting for 34%, while wild mammals comprise only 4%.

Despite a decline in mammal diversity, the total biomass of terrestrial mammals has significantly increased, expanding approximately ninefold over the past 10,000 years.

Curious to learn more about mammals? Check out this graphic that shows the biomass of all the world’s mammals.

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