Average Working Hours: Facts and Historical Data
How many hours did you work last week? We bet it was less than what your ancestors worked a few hundred years ago.
While we typically consider normal working hours to be something like 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, that hasn't always been the case. Weekly working hours have fluctuated over time. They reached an all-time high during the Industrial Revolution before creeping back down to the lower levels we work today.
Despite the change in average working hours throughout history, keeping track of those hours has always mattered. Tracking work hours even led to worker rebellions as labor forces demanded an eight-hour workday, which is now considered regular working hours for most of the world.
How many hours you work is also tied to benefits like health insurance, paid time off, and taxes. Maybe most importantly, working hours affect how much you get paid and whether or not you'll receive overtime pay. So accurate tracking matters a lot.
But how did we end up with this Monday-to-Friday schedule? And what does the workweek look like for the rest of the world? Let's dive into the average annual hours worked by country and how we got here. We'll investigate the history of the standard workweek, the typical work schedule, examine when other countries are clocking in and out, and see how companies measure work time around the world.
History of working hours
The typical workweek of eight hours a day, five days a week, is a relatively modern phenomenon. Setting that standard was a hard-won battle. It took decades of demonstrations from the labor force and, finally, government intervention.
It turns out our ancestors had much lower working hours than we do today. Workers in the late fourteenth century only worked about 1,440 hours a year. Most of the Western world today works around 1,700 hours a year, for comparison. However, our medieval ancestors put in long days — most of those hours were worked during the planting and harvest seasons, which was only about six months per year.
How the industrial revolution changed everything
Four hundred years later, during the Industrial Revolution, working time skyrocketed. Many workers put in 10 hours per day, six days a week. When the U.S. government started tracking work hours in 1890, they found that the average workweek for manufacturing employees was an incredible 100 hours a week. That is around 5,200 hours per year, or roughly three times the number of hours worked during medieval and renaissance times.
Understandably, workers started to rebel against these long hours. In 1886, thousands of workers across the country went on strike as a part of the Eight-Hour Day Movement. The movement brought attention to the plight of the American worker.
Several industries began to reform work hours to prevent labor strikes. The mining industry introduced a shorter workweek in 1898, and the printing industry followed in 1905.
By the 1920s, the average worker could expect to work an eight-hour workday, six days a week. It wasn't until the United States Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 that there was a nationwide standard for working hours. This act required employers to pay for overtime work that's over 44 hours per week. Two years later, they amended the act and standardized the 40-hour workweek in the United States.
Most of the world would follow suit over the next few decades. France did so in 1948, and Australia did the same in the 1960s. Most European countries implemented a standard 40-hour workweek by the 1970s.
Today, workers in the United States average 1,757 hours per year. Their European counterparts work an average of around 1,500 hours per year. Worldwide, the total time spent working in an average year is now back in line with pre-Industrial Revolution standards.
Average annual working hours by country
One key point to consider when looking at working hours is that the hours you work in a year will largely depend on where you live. Workers in developed countries generally work fewer hours, on average. That's partially due to the greater availability of part-time jobs in these nations. Those living in poorer countries tend to work more hours at lower wages than workers in wealthier nations.
Average annual hours continue to change, too. For example, German workers continue to work fewer hours with each passing decade, going from roughly 2,500 annual hours in 1950 to 1,354 hours in 2017. Other countries, such as India and the United States, have leveled off in average hours over the last several decades. China, on the other hand, has had a slight increase in average hours, from 1,976 average annual working hours in 1970 to 2,174 in 2017.
Here is a sampling of average annual working hours around the world:
Cambodia — 2,456 (the highest)
Mexico — 2,255
Costa Rica — 2,212
South Africa — 2,209
China — 2,174
India — 2,117
South Korea — 2,063
Colombia — 1,998
Russia — 1,974
Israel — 1,921
Portugal — 1,863
Nigeria — 1,827
The United States — 1,757
Japan — 1,738
Canada — 1,696
The United Kingdom — 1,670
Sweden — 1,609
France — 1,514
Germany — 1,354 (the lowest)
Structuring the workweek
Setting standards for the workweek
Most of the world considers their workweek to start on Monday and end on Friday, with Saturdays and Sundays off for leisure time.
Saturday and Sunday did not become expected days off by accident. They become the standard "weekend" for the Western world thanks to various religious traditions. Consider that Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday and Jewish people observe it on Saturday.
That's also why countries with predominantly non-Christian populations historically observed other days for the weekend. In countries with a majority Muslim population, weekends used to be observed on Thursdays and Fridays. However, to facilitate global trading, the majority of countries now adhere to the Saturday and Sunday weekend, with actual working hours taking place mostly Monday through Friday. A few countries still have a one-day weekend, such as Fridays only in Iran or Saturdays only in Nepal.
Most of the Western world also adheres to a 9 AM to 5 PM schedule for their working hours. In Japan, though, workers typically start at 8:30 AM and work through to 7 PM. They often work overtime, too, and stay for drinks with co-workers after their shift.
This particular work culture has a special word for death by overworking: karoshi. Many other countries, such as Italy and China, work later into the day but take long rest and meal breaks in the middle of the workday.
The rise of the four-day workweek
One trend in working hours that's gaining in popularity is the four-day workweek. Jacinda Adern, prime minister of New Zealand, is one fan of the idea. She believes that a four-day workweek would not only give New Zealanders better work/life balance, but it could also benefit the economy.
New Zealand's economy is largely dependent on tourism, which came to a halt during the Covid-19 pandemic. By switching the country's workforce to a four-day workweek, Adern hopes that more people will use that extra day off for leisure activities. That would, in turn, pump more money back into the country’s economy.
Iceland recently tried a four-day workweek. At the end of four years, they found that the four-day workweek improved worker well-being and productivity. These positive outcomes were true across various industries, including hospitals, offices, and schools.
A few big companies are trying the four-day workweek, too. Microsoft Japan tried it with employees in 2019 and reported an incredible 40% jump in productivity. Kickstarter will try it out with all of its employees in 2022.
With multiple success stories and international support, we could see more companies adopting the four-day workweek policy in the future.
Paid time off
In 1910, President Taft proposed that all Americans should have three months off every year. As any U.S.-based worker can attest, his attempt failed. Further attempts to require paid time off (PTO) as part of U.S. labor regulations would continue to fail.
Today, the United States ranks at the bottom of the list for PTO globally. While there are nine national holidays, no laws require that businesses close on those days. There is also no law stating that if the business does close, it must pay employees for those missed hours.
Vacation time isn't regulated by U.S. labor laws, either, leaving it up to the individual businesses to decide how much PTO to give their employees.
The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world without a legal PTO requirement, a list which includes India, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea.
It's a different story in other parts of the world, where PTO policies can range from generous to meager:
In the United Kingdom, full-time employees get 28 days of annual leave, as mandated by law. Part-time workers get the same amount of annual leave, pro rata with hours worked. There are also eight public holidays.
Brazil ties with France for the most generous PTO policies. Workers in both countries get a full 30 days of vacation time. Workers in Brazil also get up to 12 days off for public and religious holidays, while the French enjoy 11 paid public holidays.
Mexico has the fewest mandatory vacation days globally, with just six days of paid leave and seven public holidays.
The United States is one of the few developed countries with no government-mandated paid family leave policy, either.
Pew Research found that of 41 countries, the United States was the only one that had no required paid family leave. Policies in other countries ranged from five weeks of leave in Ireland to a generous 86 weeks of paid leave in Estonia.
Overtime hours are hours worked beyond the contracted or legally mandated amount of hours in a workweek. In the United States, the Department of Labor considers anything over 40 hours to be overtime (unless that employee is specifically exempted).
If employees work overtime, they may be due additional compensation for those extra hours. If an employer fails to pay the time-and-a-half rate for overtime hours, they could face legal action.
There are no limits to the amount of overtime a worker in the United States can perform. Other countries attempt to limit the amount of overtime to prevent worker abuse and burnout. A few overtime policies around the world include:
In China, the government caps overtime at 36 hours a month. Employers must pay employees 1.5 times their normal rate for any time worked over the standard 40-hour workweek.
The United Kingdom limits working hours to 48 hours per week. Employees can voluntarily opt for more if they wish, but employers must then grant additional time off to make up for the overtime.
France considers any work done over 35 hours a week to be overtime. Employers must pay a premium for those additional hours.
Employers might set hours limits to avoid excessive overtime.
Limiting overtime is about more than just protecting a company’s budget.
Working too many hours can be detrimental to an employee's health. The World Health Organization warned that long work hours led to 745,000 deaths in a single year. Most of these deaths occurred in men, 60 to 79 years old, who worked 55 hours or more a week. They found that these long hours contributed to a 35% increase in the risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of heart disease.
Working too many hours can also increase your risk of diabetes, anxiety, and depression. Tracking overtime hours can help keep health care costs lower, prevent employee burnout, and reduce turnover rates.
The challenges of tracking work hours today
Whether you use pen and paper methods or sophisticated software, accuracy is critical to effective hour tracking. However, it's becoming increasingly difficult for employers to track working hours. Several factors drive this trend, including:
A dispersed workforce
The ability to track time worked as time spent at a desk is largely over, with 71% of workers doing their jobs from home some or all the time. Employers now have to rely on other methods to track time spent on the job.
Employers need to allocate time worked to various projects. This helps them track ROI and manage costs. They need to be able to do this remotely, as well, for employees working off-site.
If your team is on the road, how do you track their work time? Leaving reporting up to the employee can make companies vulnerable to time theft and fraud.
As the workforce becomes more dispersed, mobile, and complicated, time tracking tools have become more sophisticated. Companies are turning to software solutions like Hubstaff for accurate time reporting.
Hubstaff offers tools to accurately report work hours, no matter where in the world your team is working. It also offers powerful reporting tools that help you track productivity and project budgets as you go. You can even create policies to prevent overtime and keep teams on track for success by assigning specific to-dos to them.
Finally, Hubstaff can even use GPS location and geofencing technology to auto-start and stop the timer on each person’s device. There’s an option to send a notification instead, which makes these more automated features customizable for each business.
Is tracking working hours becoming an issue in your company? Sign up for a free 14-day trial of Hubstaff and see how our all-in-one time tracker can work for your business. Hubstaff makes tracking easy, so you can focus on business growth.