Germans prove that long hours and productivity are often two completely different things

german-flagEarlier this year, Insight published the results of a survey which showed that the World’s hardest workers, contrary to what Jeremy Clarkson might say, are Mexican. But that poll told half the story because it only measured the number of hours people work. When it comes to productivity measured by output against time spent working, it turns out that it’s the Germans who are the undisputed champions according to research from the PEW Trust. This won’t come as a surprise if you believe the Teutonic stereotype, as many people assuredly do. The survey also found that, when asked which nation had the most productive workers, respondents in the UK, France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany itself all believe that Germans are Europe’s hardest workers.

One notable dissenting voice came from Greece. Putting aside the recent antagonism between Germany and Greece, the Greeks assume they are the hardest workers in Europe. This is half true. The average Greek worker puts in 2034 hours per year, the longest in Europe. Only Koreans and Mexicans work longer among the 35 countries surveyed in the OECD. By comparison the Germans put in the fewest hours of any European nation surveyed with the exception of the Dutch. They work just 1393 hours a year, but are significantly more productive in that time. According to the survey, it takes a Greek worker one hour and 41 minutes to produce what a German makes in an hour.

However the report notes that we should be wary when making such comparisons, not least because the structure of the two country’s economies are markedly different. A relatively high proportion of Greeks work in sectors which are labour intensive such as agriculture and tourism, but which tend not to produce high levels of output per hour worked. By contrast, other countries in Europe have a greater presence in high productivity sectors such as manufacturing, finance, technology and business services.
Another important factor is that workers in rich countries tend to work fewer hours than workers in poorer countries. The survey suggests that this is counter-intuitive because most people associate high incomes with hard work. In fact people in rich countries tend to work shorter hours than those in poor countries.

One notable exception to this rule is the USA. Americans work long hours and have high levels of productivity, which the report concludes may be the result of low and middle income earners not seeing the country’s increases in GDP over the last 40 years reflected in their incomes.

The picture in parts of Northern Europe including Germany and Scandinavia, and one all countries should try to emulate, is of high levels of employment and hence economic engagement, a short working week, but a focus on output during that time.


John SacksJohn Sacks is a chartered accountant, with a degree in Law from the University of London, and over 40 years experience managing office furniture manufacturing companies in Europe. Now Managing Partner in JSA Consultancy Services, a business consultancy based in London which helps international office and contract furniture companies with their corporate strategy, marketing and product design and development.