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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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Politics

Charted: The Number of Democracies Globally

How many democracies does the world have? This visual shows the change since 1945 and the top nations becoming more (and less) democratic.

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Charted: The Number of Democracies Globally

The end of World War II in 1945 was a turning point for democracies around the world.

Before this critical turning point in geopolitics, democracies made up only a small number of the world’s countries, both legally and in practice. However, over the course of the next six decades, the number of democratic nations would more than quadruple.

Interestingly, studies have found that this trend has recently reversed as of the 2010s, with democracies and non-democracies now in a deadlock.

In this visualization, Staffan Landin uses data from V-DEM’s Electoral Democratic Index (EDI) to highlight the changing face of global politics over the past two decades and the nations that contributed the most to this change.

The Methodology

V-DEM’s EDI attempts to measure democratic development in a comprehensive way, through the contributions of 3,700 experts from countries around the world.

Instead of relying on each nation’s legally recognized system of government, the EDI analyzes the level of electoral democracy in countries on a range of indicators, including:

  • Free and fair elections
  • Rule of law
  • Alternative sources of information and association
  • Freedom of expression

Countries are assigned a score on a scale from 0 to 1, with higher scores indicating a higher level of democracy. Each is also categorized into four types of functional government, from liberal and electoral democracies to electoral and closed autocracies.

Which Countries Have Declined the Most?

The EDI found that numerous countries around the world saw declines in democracy over the past two decades. Here are the 10 countries that saw the steepest decline in EDI score since 2010:

CountryDemocracy Index (2010)Democracy Index (2022)Points Lost
🇭🇺 Hungary0.800.46-34
🇵🇱 Poland0.890.59-30
🇷🇸 Serbia0.610.34-27
🇹🇷 Turkey0.550.28-27
🇮🇳 India0.710.44-27
🇲🇱 Mali0.510.25-26
🇹🇭 Thailand0.440.20-24
🇦🇫 Afghanistan0.380.16-22
🇧🇷 Brazil0.880.66-22
🇧🇯 Benin0.640.42-22

Central and Eastern Europe was home to three of the countries seeing the largest declines in democracy. Hungary, Poland, and Serbia lead the table, with Hungary and Serbia in particular dropping below scores of 0.5.

Some of the world’s largest countries by population also decreased significantly, including India and Brazil. Across most of the top 10, the “freedom of expression” indicator was hit particularly hard, with notable increases in media censorship to be found in Afghanistan and Brazil.

Countries Becoming More Democratic

Here are the 10 countries that saw the largest increase in EDI score since 2010:

CountryDemocracy Index (2010)Democracy Index (2022)Points Gained
🇦🇲 Armenia0.340.74+40
🇫🇯 Fiji0.140.40+26
🇬🇲 The Gambia0.250.50+25
🇸🇨 Seychelles0.450.67+22
🇲🇬 Madagascar0.280.48+20
🇹🇳 Tunisia0.400.56+16
🇱🇰 Sri Lanka0.420.57+15
🇬🇼 Guinea-Bissau0.410.56+15
🇲🇩 Moldova0.590.74+15
🇳🇵 Nepal0.460.59+13

Armenia, Fiji, and Seychelles saw significant improvement in the autonomy of their electoral management bodies in the last 10 years. Partially as a result, both Armenia and Seychelles have seen their scores rise above 0.5.

The Gambia also saw great improvement across many election indicators, including the quality of voter registries, vote buying, and election violence. It was one of five African countries to make the top 10 most improved democracies.

With the total number of democracies and non-democracies almost tied over the past four years, it is hard to predict the political atmosphere in the future.

Want to know more about democracy in today’s world? Check out our global breakdown of each country’s democratic score in Mapped: The State of Global Democracy in 2022.
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