Josef Pieper’s 1952 publication Leisure, the Basis of Culture warned more than half a century ago of the dangers of an increasing inability to enjoy true leisure, silence, and contemplation.  Modern man is obsessed with productivity and work; so much so that family life increasingly has a hard time competing.  So which countries work the longest hours?

A recent study found that French people worked the fewest hours in 2015.  This will come as no surprise to anyone who has travelled to France only to find that the local shopping mall is closed for a couple of months while the owners enjoy a holiday.  Spread out across the entire year, Parisians worked an average of 30 hours and 50 minutes every week, slightly less than the 31 hours and 22 minutes worked in Lyon.

The average city on the index had a working week of 36 hours and 23 minutes (averaged across the whole year including holiday periods), with European locations accounting for the top 18 cities that work the fewest hours each year. Residents of New York, Beijing and Tokyo all had long working hours, working for 35.5 hours, 37.7 hours and 39.5 hours respectively each week.  However Hong Kong topped the list with a working week of just over 50 hours, 62 per cent longer than Parisians. 

Obviously there is a balance to be had between work and leisure. Moreover, society must also consider time spent doing other types of work not reflected in this study, including parenthood and the work of the home, which also contributes at an economic level.

In a praise-worthy move as technology makes working around the clock increasingly common, France is also currently in the process of banning out-of-hours emails.  It is requiring companies to give staff a set of guidelines that include evening and weekend hours when they should not read or send work-related emails. Evidencing the extent to which technology can cut into leisure time, apparently a recent report from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that the majority of United Kingdom managers spend 29 extra days a year working on handheld devices outside of office hours, more than cancelling out their full holiday allotment for the year. 

However, technology is a double-edged sword; it also enables employees to work more flexibly and better balance family life.  In particular, mothers benefit from flexible part-time hours which may be sometimes worked from home.  Countries which offer greater work flexibility to mothers encourage higher fertility rates.  

Innovative New Zealand company, My Food Bag, recognises the dilemma for families and has come up with what it believes is the most generous parental leave plan in New Zealand in a bid to be a top employer.  Scoop reports:

Ms Robinson and husband James (also Founder and Co-CEO of My Food Bag) used to own a childcare business. They say one of the most heart breaking things they experienced was the lack of choice for many parents as to whether or not and how fast they returned to the work force.

She says women can find it a real struggle juggling school/childcare pick-ups and sick kids on their return to the workforce.

“As working parents, James and I intimately understand this struggle and for that reason we have never been ‘clock watchers’ here at My Food Bag. We want our team to achieve a balance where they feel they are succeeding both at home and in the work force.

“So, as part of our goal to become the best work place in Australasia we are continuing to lead the way. Part of this is we want to ensure that each and every one of our team members feel as if they have choice when it comes to their family and their career.

“It also means that a whole generation of MFB Kiwi kids have an option to spend their first nine months at home with 18 weeks paid by MFB and 18 weeks paid by the government,” Ms Robinson says.

“We believe that’s a fantastic outcome for future generations.”

A number of countries around the world are introducing ever more generous parental leave entitlements and baby ‘bonuses’ as they begin to recognise the huge economic value of children, parenthood and family life (not that I wish to equate the value of children in economic terms!).  There is also nothing which connects flexibility with decreased productivity; in fact employees who feel tied to their desks often waste the most time.  

Whether they have children or not, may both men and women heed Josef Pieper’s warning of the dangers of an inability to enjoy true leisure, silence, and contemplation by continually reflecting on their work/life balance; work can so easily take over otherwise when really we almost always consider other things more important.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...