No Regrets: Integrating Work-life, Part 2 – How much work is the right amount?

This is part 2 of the article No Regrets: Integrating Work-Life.

Most of us still work for companies that restrict the amount of leave we can take. With the US still having no legal minimum required by law. Although conversely in the UK we love a holiday and 24% of us manage 3 a year. Nonetheless, it’s hardly the work less, play more utopia we were promised.

So we need to look at what is happening, where there’s the most progress and where we are exploiting technology to make leaps in lifestyle and healthy relationships with work.

At the risk of coming off a bit ‘climate scientist,’ I would like to start by saying that events alone don’t create a trend. Also to quote Mark Twain ‘There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damns lies and Statistics’. But other than those caveats let’s jump in.

This image from World in Data shows the trend in (annual) working hours

Now of course this is just one part of the developed world. But richer countries like these do tend to work fewer hours than poorer countries, so in the topic of future of work, it is OK to start here in the sense that the developed world is hopefully showing the leading edge of a worldwide trend. But based on the numbers dropping fast since the industrial revolution, and taking into account the undoubted impact of the digit revolution we should be able to zoom in on recent years and see something dramatic….

We don’t.

In fact, it’s only Germany that seems to be continuing the trend. I would also add that over the last decade, despite more data points,  working hours have been incredibly difficult to track. Hours ‘at work’ are not the only hours we work. I’m pretty disciplined, for example, but I often work after the kids have gone to bed. The tracking here may not be what work people are really doing but more likely when they are ‘at work’ and this also varies slightly depending on the reporting in each country. So what is going on in Germany? Well, it’s hard to say – it’s a mix of things and may benefit from some of those reporting inconsistencies, but if you are working some of the least recorded hours in the developed world and yet your purchasing power is in the top 20 in the world, you must be getting something right.

The general acceptance is Germany has strong vocational training, a very clear productivity culture and an emphasis on STEM roles. Increasingly the policymaking Germany is anti long hours and work invading life. From a business point of view it’s the productivity point that I am interested in – Michal Fan a Quora contributor compared Taiwan to Germany in this respect to help understand why they are able to outcompete Asia:

Germans take a longer view when it comes to productivity. They seem to have grasped the seemingly very simple idea that there is a point beyond which an average human being can no longer do productive work. East Asians may be hard-working but most of us are not particularly productive. You can often see Taiwanese workers skipping lunch and coffee breaks but fiddling around in front of their work station messaging and browsing during work hours. Employees provide more value to the company long-term if they’re healthy physically and psychologically and can constantly upgrade their skills. This means that employers need to provide a good work-life balance, which they by and large do in Germany.

With the exception of Germany, something about how the developed world is leveraging technology and or relating to work isn’t realising the dream or indeed the trajectory of leisure time. I, for one, want to know why. It’s worth pointing out the tables above are basically combining two things – holiday and typical working hours. I have chosen this data set because I think that’s what we care about isn’t it? I mean we are talking about the future of work, you might work 14 hours a day for your company (please don’t) but have unlimited leave and basically work a two day week for a full-time wage. If that works for you so be it, breaking down the factors that contribute to a better work-life balance are useful.

Clearly, companies looking to be more proactive in this area can’t throw everything against the wall – a 4 day week and unlimited leave might seem like business suicide for even the most employee-centric CEO. But of course that’s not the point – how many companies would check all the retroactive policies and none in the right-hand column? I suspect a worrying number.


We know from Germany, on a national scale, in the developed world, we can be more productive and break the myth of a correlation between hours spent working and success, at least economically.

But what about the microeconomic scale? What about companies, small companies and workers?

I’m glad you asked.

I can see from my position of both curiosity, training and privilege a real problem. We have inherited a ‘workplace’ mentality. So whilst I write this after a year of lockdowns and/or restrictions on working in the same place the reality of the workplace has changed but not the mindset.

study from the bureau for labour statistics from a few years back showed the most unproductive activities workers undertake each day:

  • Reading news websites–1 hour, 5 minutes

  • Checking social media–44 minutes

  • Discussing non-work-related things with co-workers–40 minutes

  • Searching for new jobs–26 minutes

  • Taking smoke breaks–23 minutes

  • Making calls to partners or friends–18 minutes

  • Making hot drinks–17 minutes

  • Texting or instant messaging–14 minutes

  • Eating snacks–8 minutes

  • Making food in office–7 minutes

So in essence employers are paying for barely half a day’s work. Now I actually think that’s OK. If you have asked me to travel into an office, spend 8 hours there with people I  maybe like but wouldn’t choose to spend time with, in perhaps unfulfilling work, allowing distractions and gossip is only human. But if you then start to penny-pinch around hours worked, internet histories and ‘social’ activities you are only making yourself look stupid. As though despite employing many thousands of workers (maybe) you have no idea what they do each day.

Now I’m not suggesting everyone should work harder and compress their day to make the whole thing a bit fairer. In fact, as any advocates of the Pomodoro technique will tell you, breaks are necessary for maximum productivity. But imagine for a moment that:

  1. Work was a bit more enjoyable and leveraged people’s natural skills, increasing ‘flow’ …

  2. There was no expectation about hours worked but simply output or even better outcomes (incentivising being more productive) …

  3. People could work at almost any house they like – allowing them to arrange to meet the people they are messaging and the choice wouldn’t be between news sites and work anymore, it would be between news sites and life …

Don’t you think everyone would be not only more productive and happier?

By default, many people have lived this sort of life, kind of, during the pandemic lockdown. Except they haven’t been able to spend time with friends and family if they got all their work done quickly and they have been subjected to meeting after meeting by bosses who are still in the workplace mindset overcompensating for a lack of personal contact.

The truth is, as Daniel Kahneman described in his seminal piece on how the brain works, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ the most effective, efficient and dominant part of our brain is not designed for the intellectual work many of us get paid to do for 8 hours a day. After 8 hours of such work, our capacity to make decisions and be effective on that sort of work has diminished significantly.

In case you were wondering what the upshot of all of the above is – you are productive for about 2hrs and 23 minutes a day.

The 4-day work week

I have heard of experiments in the 4-day work week for some time. In fact, a campaign in the UK has been pushing this with evidence that spans the historic trends outline above as well as evidence that it supports employee wellbeing

That’s all well and good. But we know that across the whole world, the 5 day week is fairly entrenched (with many Asian countries still advocating a 6 day week) so surely this can’t shift.

Well, the below graphic from this Blomberg article suggest that the shift is real.

Fortunately, this is a tangible measure in posted job ads but of course, this is probably just indicative of a more general trend towards other more flexible factors.