Can working less be good for productivity?

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One of my colleagues recently suggested something that appealed to the Nintendo-playing 10-year-old inside me. “We should get Fridays off!” she declared. “It’ll be, um… good for productivity!”

Good call. Except when a boss hears that, what she actually hears is, “We’re going to get 4/5 as much work done!”

Every year statistics come out saying how America is the most overworked country, and places like Germany and Spain have easier work weeks with similar results for workers. My inner 10-year-old dwelled on the subject a little more after my friend brought it up and wondered, could she actually be right?

The business section of the Blogosphere is full of dubiously-sourced help articles claiming that more time off is good for productivity—except, wait—there’s no evidence that people won’t stop watching YouTube during work if they have fewer hours to work—and no, actually—a human can only have productive focus for six hours at a time—but that’s not right either because investment bankers and coal miners and pizza drivers work way more than that and are majorly productive; it’s just not healthy sometimes.

Pretty sure that was a run-on sentence. Anyway, the arguments are mixed.

So, I decided to take a look at what data tells us about our work lives and whether working less actually can make us more productive.

Work less, accomplish… what?

Economists measure a country’s productivity in terms of GDP, or the total value of all the stuff that the country produces. Because some countries have more workers than others, it’s not really fair to judge how productive a country’s individual workers are based on GDP alone, so economists divide GDP by a number of hours everyone in the country works to get a number called Labor Productivity.

This chart shows how much money major countries make per hour their employed citizens work:

As you can see, some countries get a lot more bang for their workers’ hour than others. Judging by just this chart, Americans should all move to Luxembourg or Norway. Also, this puts the whole Mexican–U.S. immigration thing in a dramatic light: If you work in Russia or Mexico or South Africa, you’ll make triple in America.

Or will you?

Before we can jump to that conclusion, we should look at the average disposable income of workers each country to make sure we get a good picture of how much money workers take home with them. Here’s that chart:

Once again, Luxembourg is killing the game. But we have some surprise movers in Switzerland and Ireland in terms of workers who are slightly less productive but are taking home more money themselves. Of course, we’re not taking into account the quality of living and government-provided stuff in each country in this chart. For example, in the United Kingdom, health care is all free (paid for by taxes), whereas in the United States, your health insurance costs come out of your own paycheck.

Now the most interesting part. Let’s look at how many hours the average employed worker spends on the job every year:

When we look at our Labor Productivity chart, we see that the United States is a hair more productive than Germany; however, Germans work 8 hours less every week than Americans. Yay, Nintendo Fridays!

In other words, if you work in Germany, you get 95% of the result for 80% of the effort. That’s like getting straight As in school even though you play video games one day a week instead of studying.

Except that’s wrong, too…

This is the data that everyone else gets excited about every year when the stats come out, writing headlines like “The United States is the most overworked country” and “Germans work less and it’s awesome”, etc. It turns out, however, that the above statistics are for total employment, which includes part-timers.

Some countries help out part-timers with social benefits more than others, and lots of countries have student workers who work much less than other countries’ student workers (such as in countries like the U.S. where college tuition is wicked expensive and students have to work more hours).

Anyway, there are lots of reasons why an average stat like this could give a skewed picture of what it’s like to be a regular worker.

When you filter for just full time workers, the picture of what it’s like to work around the world changes quite a bit:

Should you relocate?

So first of all, I still wouldn’t recommend moving to Mexico to become a day laborer. But also, here we see that full-time German workers work only 1.9 hours less each week than the U.S., which is a lot less exciting. This maps out almost exactly to the difference in labor productivity (and it results in less net income for workers).

I did the math on all these countries and calculated this effort: productivity ratio for everyone. The conclusion: the only two countries that give you a better financial bang for your buck as a worker are Switzerland and Luxembourg. But just barely. (Two percent better in Switzerland, and 11 percent in Luxembourg.)

In other words, despite the hype, it’s good to be a worker in the United States. And unfortunately, there’s not an easy way out of that forty-hour work week if you want to maximize your income.

What about that four-day workweek?

According to the data, the amount of hours you work is almost exactly proportional to output and pay. Working 4/5 of the work week will get you 4/5 of the output—and pay. (Regardless, it appears, of whether you’re working four 10-hour days or five 8-hour days.)

Up to a certain point…

The one hitch is that once workers clock more than 50 hours in a given week, productivity tumbles fast. This graph is from a study on marginal productivity (i.e. additional productivity per hour) by John Pencavel of Stanford University:

In other words, if you work 50 hours a week or less, your work output is proportional to how much you work. After that, you’re burning out. Post 60 hours, and you may as well go home; you’ll achieve about the same in 70 hours as you would in 60. (Note how around 60 hours, the marginal productivity goes negative!)

Of course, these figures are generalizing across industries. They’re telling the big picture in each country, the average of the industries and the workers there—not the story of computer programmers or I-bankers or managers, but everyone. How much you can productively work will certainly vary by how difficult or stimulating the work is itself, and how much you make is based largely on how specialized the work is.

The point, then, is that if you want to maximize your bang per work hour, you’re better off getting an education and landing a better job at a better company than simply moving to a more “relaxed” place. The other good options are to get a well-paying online job, say goodbye to your friends, and move somewhere where rent is super cheap. (This is the premise of that Four Hour Work Week book that happened a few years ago.)

To that end, I looked at the Economist’s latest Worldwide Cost of Living Report to figure out what your best options for online workers who want to be as lazy as possible and still live in a city with museums and running water. Here they are:

#10. Riyadh
#9. Jeddah
#8. Panama City
#7. Bucharest
#6. Algiers
#5. Kathmandu
#4. Damascus
#3. New Delhi
#2. Karachi
#1. Mumbai

So there you go, bosses. Next time some chipper employee says, “Let’s get Fridays off!”, go ahead and tell them that’s cool. As long as they move to the Middle East or India.

Shane Snow is a journalist in New York City and co-founder of Contently. Get a free chapter of his bestselling book, Smartcuts, here.

This article first appeared on Linkedin.