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Kirsty Senior

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Learning from Europe’s approach to working hours

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There’s more to the EU than the Working Time Directive. Whilst EU employees should be guaranteed these standards, many European countries have their own approach to working hours. This impacts upon their citizens’ subsequent work-life balance; something UK businesses could certainly learn from.

However, depending on the EU nation that you look at, their rules and traditions can be quite different. That’s why we’re going to take a look at three different nations and their approaches to working hours.

France

Working hours in France are generally Monday to Friday, just as you would normally find in the UK. But with a couple of small differences.

Unusual in places such as Paris or other bigger cities, but a norm elsewhere, French workers have in the past been encouraged to enjoy a long lunch break. However, this is increasingly becoming an outdated tradition, as businesses keep up with the rest of the world.

Whilst in the UK there’s typically the standard nine am to five pm, or perhaps half past five, French working hours can extend to six o’clock. And in the retail sector, businesses can even be open as late as eight. Many managers, not subject to France’s famous 35-hour cap, work up to 44 hours a week – but some have even petitioned the government to work more.

France is quite protective of its workers’ work-life balance, and they’ve shown that in law with a 35-hours-per-week cap, and even as recently as last year with further legislation. A deal struck last year that affected around 250,000 employees in the tech and consultancy sectors meant that staff are obliged to ‘disconnect’ from work calls and emails after they’ve left the office at the end of the day.

Whilst the deal is a boon for those in the tech industry looking to switch off at the end of the day, the 35-hour week rule is potentially misleading. The law applies mainly to blue-collar workers and large organisations, whereas many – e.g. executives, aforementioned company managers, caretakers, and domestic staff – are not covered by the ruling.

Therefore, what can we learn from France’s various rules on working hours? Perhaps that a longer, less intensive, working day could instil more engagement and even a better work ethic? Last year’s data on France’s productivity seems to show that they what they do has worked – standing 15% higher than the UK.

Germany

Germany is known for its great and efficient work ethic, but is this fact or stereotype?

Well, as far as working hours go, they’ve been successful in keeping their average down – in 2011 having worked an average of 35 hours a week for those in full-time employment, lower than the UK average, whilst maintaining a high level of productivity.

Perhaps how they are successful working less hours is through their stringent outlook on out-of-hours work, i.e. it doesn’t exist in principle. They generally take the separation of work and private life as a value to be protected.

Much like France, they are considering a ban on work-related emails after six pm. Their employment ministry has even introduced guidelines banning managers from emailing or calling employees outside of work hours (except in emergencies of course) – employers now cannot punish staff for failing to respond outside work hours.

What does this tell us about Germany? Unlike France, which would appear to focus increasingly on working longer days, Germany’s working culture is focused on being as productive as possible within work hours, and maintaining a divide between your job and your home life.

With more strict rules on office etiquette and behaviour, staff are expected to work hard when in the office, and switch off when out of it. Therefore engaging employees is all the more important, something that the UK currently struggles with in the workplace.

Spain

Famous for its siestas, Spain has a unique approach to working hours that it has become renowned for.

Typically working from around nine am to around half past one, then from around five pm to eight pm, Spanish businesses are known for taking a three hour break from work during the hottest part of the day. With temperatures often reaching the high twenties and even thirties you can certainly understand why!

However, in recent years this tradition has been challenged in order to keep up with the rest of Europe – especially in the main economic centres. Rural areas are the only places you’ll likely find observing siesta.

The standard working week is around 40 hours, close to the UK average. One main difference when compared to many EU nations though is the approach to rest periods, with 12 instead of 11 hours of rest stipulated by law. Overtime is also regulated to only eighty hours per year unless there’s a collective agreement otherwise.

Whilst slightly different again from Germany and France’s approach to working, there is one undercurrent that seems to be common. That being the respect for an employee’s work-life balance. In fact, looking at the data for Spain from 2011, this would appear to have little effect on their productivity – ranking similarly to the UK despite working fewer hours on average.

What can we learn?

So what can we learn when looking at various European approaches to working hours?

Well, using these three countries at least, we can tell that it is not just the amount of working hours that makes business more successful, but rather the focus on a proper work-life balance. As seen in France, many are even keen to work longer hours; in Germany, they work fewer hours and get more done; and in Spain, they’re looking to get rid of the traditional siesta.

Therefore, thinking of increasing productivity based on a binary increase or decrease of working hours in the UK wouldn’t really be sensible. Instead, taking the time to ensure that employees are engaged in their work – something UK businesses do struggle with – would be a much more reliable way of ensuring that you get the most value out of your employees.

Of course, you can’t simply apply a different country’s work ethic and expect everything to work perfectly. However, as we’ve seen in recent years that work-life balance has become more important to the incumbent generation of workers, perhaps companies in the UK should take note of how neighbouring nations perform under different working practices and hours.

2 Responses

  1. Hi, I am sorry but I do not
    Hi, I am sorry but I do not agree with some things on this article. I have lived and worked in Spain and Germany and have many friends in both countries (also France). But what really upset my is why when foreign people (that never lived in Spain) talk about work, the first word that pops up is “siesta” why? Where does this comes from? In Spain, the normal work schedule in every company (big and smalls) is Monday-Friday 8-17 or 9-16 with 1 hour (yes 1 not 3) for lunch. ONLY shops and public services have this 9-13 and 17-21 schedule, and the reason is not because they are located in rural areas, or because the want to sleep siesta or due to the high temperatures (in this case this should be done only during the summer…Spain is also cold in winter…). The reason for this 3-4 hours break that shops and public services in general take this schedule is to provide a better service, since most of the people who leaves their job at 17 or 18 will still be able to go shoping or to the bank or, or… We should ask this people if they prefer this 3 hours “siesta” or leaving at 17 like everybody else. It is a matter of great service, not a matter of “siesta”. So please lets stop talking about “siesta” when we talk about Spanish job. I invite you to live and work 2 years in the country and realize it for yourselves.
    I lived also in sweden for 2 years, and when you leave job at 17h everything is closed… so you need to take one day off at your job in order to go to the bank or go shopping, or, or…

    1. It’s a good point – I’ve
      It’s a good point – I’ve lived in Spain and Germany as well as the UK and found the Spanish working hours much more helpful in terms of being able to do errands after work as the shops were open later. I’ve also found – having both friends who work overseas and working in companies that deal daily with European colleagues – that many other countries such as Germany, Netherlands and Sweden have a shorter working day on Fridays, which also seems like a great idea. Now that more UK companies are giving employees the choice of flexible working, it’ll be interesting to see how people manage their workloads and work-life balance, as well as what knock-on effect it has on retail/public services, as this old schedule of doing everything at weekends has been in place for so long!

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Kirsty Senior

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