juggler leaping and dropping their balls

Tamryn Yap – Risk and Resilience Consultant, Protean Business Solutions

The 45-hour work week – is it too much?

South Africa is among those nations with the longest working hours, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The average South African working week is 45 hours, while the country that works the longest hours, Colombia, averages about 49.8 hours a week, according to USA Today.

Denmark and the Netherlands have the shortest workweek, averaging 37 hours, and the Irish work for 39 hours a week. It is important to note that Japan, renowned for its work ethic, has a workweek of 40 hours, according to Japanese labour law. However, the Japanese work more than 80 hours overtime each month, often unpaid. In reality, the Japanese work between 60-70 hours a week. Karōshi, translated as ‘overwork death’, is prominent in this nation, and thousands of Japanese workers suffer from Karōshi every year – employees die from a stroke, heart attack or suicide as a result of being overworked.

Why does this matter? And why is it difficult to work out how much time we should spend working, since we spend most of our lives at work anyway?

Does working longer actually mean greater productivity?

While the Japanese work long hours, it does not mean they are the most productive nation. The graph below shows the productivity of three of the nations with the shortest working weeks, and two that work for longer hours. We can see that Japan’s productivity falls below that of two of the nations with the shortest working weeks, despite its long work hours. South Africa also sinks below par.

GDP per hour worked:

Source: OECD.

Despite the surprisingly higher trend towards productivity as work hours decrease, there are many other reasons why countries do not hit their productivity targets. Steady climber Denmark enjoys both shorter working hours and higher productivity – in other words, they explore work-life balance.

Denmark on work-life balance

Denmark enjoys one of the best work-life balances in the world. One of the keys to this balance is that they prioritise life over work – and when they are at work, they enjoy a high degree of flexibility, with the option of when to start their working day and where to work from. They have designated lunch breaks each day, which enables them to socialise with their colleagues. There is also a minimum of five weeks’ paid vacation time for all employees.

According to a survey conducted by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Denmark has one of the highest levels of satisfaction. The Danish rank education, health, environment, and work- life balance more highly than jobs and income. Danish professor Christian Bjørnskov explains this very Danish attitude: “Money is not as important in the social life here as, for example, Britain and America. We probably spend our money differently. We don’t buy big houses or big cars; we like to spend our money on socialising with others.”

Where does our eight hour work day come from?

The eight-hour workday was created to protect workers who held jobs during the industrial revolution. Much like our ancestors, we are expected to work these long days with few breaks and little flexibility in our work schedules.


However, studies show that it does not matter how many hours you work, but rather how you structure your workday. A study conducted by the Draugiem Group discovered that people who took short breaks often were more productive than those who worked long hours.

The 52/17 work-to-break ratio emerged – 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest. People who adopted this schedule maintained stable focus throughout the 52 minutes, with no break in concentration to have a ’quick look’ at emails or Facebook. When they felt fatigued, they took a short break that isolated them from the world of work for a time, which helped them to dive back into work refreshed.

You don’t necessarily have to sit with a timer to ensure you stick to this ratio, but around an hour of good, focused work time and 15 minutes off is a good starting estimate. Remember to respect that hour and not let social media, emails or phone calls distract you. Also, when you take a break, make sure you disconnect properly by walking, chatting to someone, or spending some time in meditation or contemplation.

What can we learn from this? Do as the Danish do, and also follow the 52/17 rule? It’s up to you – it depends on what you want out of life, what is most important to you, and how you structure your day to get the life you desire. You can choose to make a start, and “sail while the breeze blows”, since wind and tide wait for no man, according to the Danish proverb. Or you can let your desires perish by overworking. The choice is yours.