Americans spend more time working than their European counterparts — but at what price? In the Gallup 2013 State of the American Workforce poll, just 30 percent of Americans reported being engaged and inspired at work.
Here are five policies that make international workforces much happier than their American counterparts.
A shorter workweek
Working 9 to 5 sounds like a dream to anyone who has logged a 60-hour week, but listen to this: In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, switched to a 30-hour, four-day workweek for a trial period. Employees were asked to maintain the same level of work and commitment, but their salaries and benefits didn't change.
At the end of the two-month trial, employee engagement increased, especially in leadership, commitment, stimulation and empowerment. Work-life balance also increased from 54 percent to 78 percent, and stress levels lowered from 45 percent to 38 percent.
The trial was such a success that the company permanently instituted a four-day workweek in November 2018.
In 2014, Sweden embarked on a similar experiment, testing workers’ efficiency with a shorter overall work week — 30 hours as opposed to 40. They started the experiment with workers at a retirement home using employees at another retirement home nearby as the control group. Swedish researchers believe that a shorter workweek will help increase worker productivity, cut down on sick time and ultimately save the country money.
A survey conducted in September 2018 of employees from countries around the world found that the U.S. leads the way in employees working overtime. Globally, 72 percent of full-time employees would work four days or less a week if their salary remained the same. On a similar note, 45 percent of those surveyed said they believed they could finish their work in five hours if they had no interruptions.
More reasonable working hours
In Denmark, Danish workers take their 9 to 5 very seriously — meaning they don’t start their work till 9 a.m. and they clock out at 5 p.m. There is no office burnout because they leave the office before they have a chance to get burnt out. American workers tend to get to work early and leave much later, leaving little time for play. They aren’t necessarily working harder during all those hours; they’re just working longer. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that productivity decreases the longer hours you work.
“It’s ideal to clearly divide your time into work time and play time,” says Amy Hakim, principal owner and management consultant at the Cooper Strategic Group. “People are more productive, for instance, if they work for 55 minutes and then give themselves a five-minute break than they are if they just work for one straight hour.
“Just like a dieter needs to eat ‘cheat’ foods, in order to see long-term results, an employee needs to have the opportunity to take short breaks in order to stay on task and be most productive,” she says.
This is my favorite one on the list. Did you know that in Sweden, fika is a regular part of the workday? Fika, which translates loosely to “coffee break,” is a chance for colleagues to chat informally about their work or personal lives over a cup of coffee and a pastry. I like to think of it as “the pause that refreshes” (thanks, Coca-Cola).
When my oldest was born, my husband and I were shocked to find out that his company didn’t offer even one day of paternity leave. Strange, especially when a quick review of the same company’s European policies showed a generous offering of paternity leave for dads. Turns out that the U.S. is one of a small number of developed countries that do not mandate paid parental leave, forcing many parents back into the workforce a mere six weeks after childbirth.
The afternoon siesta
In Spain, Italy and Greece, work stops in the middle of the day for a rest period. Some countries have a three-hour break while others have two or even just one. The concept comes from a time when most work was done outdoors and the middle of the day was simply too hot to be productive. But midday naps might not only help you be more productive, they might improve your memory as well. The concept is famously taking hold in progressive work environments like Google, where nap pods encourage workers to take a little snooze on the job. For most of us though, napping at our desk is still largely frowned upon.
If instituting these policies at your office seems out of reach (unless you happen to set the policies at work), why not print out a copy of this article and “accidentally” leave it at the communal printer or drop it on your boss’ desk? You never know what a little push in the right direction can do.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in October 2014.