Wake up. Clock in. Clock out. Sleep. Repeat. It’s a familiar rhythm for the billions of people around the world who make up the global workforce. Though individual countries’ work culture and habits differ, the concept of working to earn a living — however begrudgingly — is one that most laborers and employees know well, no matter where they are in the world. Truth is, as much as people around the globe love to gripe and groan about it, work, whether we’re making small talk by the water cooler or glued to a computer screen, is an essential part of our lives that lets us enjoy the personal time we get when we’re not in the office.
That being said, the structure and nature of work takes many forms across the planet, and of course it depends on what type of work you’re doing; not everyone follows the same standards and rules across different industries, even within the same countries. Here’s a look at some elements of work culture around the world.
Work, Work, Work Culture
When it comes to business, Americans certainly have a reputation for, well, getting down to business. For a country with an exorbitantly high GDP that churns out products and results across all types of industries — manufacturing, entertainment and finance, to name a few — this reputation is not unfounded. Maybe it’s the capitalistic ethos that drives the nation’s economic policy at home and on the world stage, or perhaps it’s how much corporations are tied up with politics. Whatever it is, many Americans work under the assumption that time is money, having been culturally shaped to prioritize output — and the hustle. It’s a “rise and grind” culture that has made the all-too-relatable millennial meme “let’s get this bread” so popular among the younger members of the United States’ workforce; it captures the idea that whether or not they want to get up and work in the morning, they’ve got to play the game to earn the dough. American work ethic has inspired countless American pop culture classics such as Britney Spears’ “Work B***h” and Rihanna’s “Work” (though these artists admittedly aren’t talking about showing up to your cubicle with a collared shirt and a briefcase in hand).
Americans aren’t the only ones around the world who are known to work hard. Japan has a solid reputation for a strong work ethic — and all the consequences that follow it. Working a lot is sewn into the fabric of Japanese society, due in no small part to the country’s economic rebuilding efforts after World War II. It’s not unheard of for some of the nation’s people to work dozens, even more than a hundred hours of overtime each month, with 6- or 7-day workweeks and 12-hour days, putting in loads of work and strain on their bodies, minds and health.
There’s even a word for working oneself to death — karoshi, or “death by overwork.” It’s not extremely common in Japanese society, but it’s also not uncommon; there are reportedly more than 1,000 people who have perished from overwork-related deaths in one year alone. Some of the most common causes of death are suicide, stroke and heart failure from stress or starvation. The Japanese authorities have taken measures to curb the intensity of this spike in mortality, setting up national karoshi hotlines and encouraging corporations to set regulations on the hours their employees can work.
All of this is not to say that Americans, the Japanese and other members of work-centric cultures don’t know how to draw the line between personal and professional life. Barring the workaholics who are attached at the hip to their work emails, many busy bees in places like these love to relax and take time off to spend with family and friends, or to travel and see the world when they can squeeze out a few extra vacation days.
Be careful not to jump to the conclusion that the countries that work the most and the longest hours are also the most miserable. You might be surprised to learn that there are dozens of other nations that work longer days on average than Americans do — though their reputations might not represent this reality. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Costa Rica takes the second-place title for the most hours worked yearly on average — and it’s also often labeled one of the world’s happiest countries. Other countries like Turkey, Mexico and South Korea, among others, round out the top of the list of most hours worked yearly on average, but that doesn’t necessarily mean each country’s work culture is as extreme or intense as in other parts of the world.
A Better Balance
A proper work-life balance is key to staying sane and stable in all aspects of one’s life. But how countries treat this dynamic varies across the planet.
Jobs and work in some parts of the world are inextricably linked with personal identity. When you’re talking with a stranger or a new friend, the question “What do you do?” might be totally appropriate in a place like the United States or Canada, but it’s seen as more gauche or taboo if you’re in Europe, where one’s job isn’t as interwoven with their livelihood. Many Europeans see jobs as just one fraction of a multidimensional life, and they’d rather not blather on about work if there’s more interesting content to riff on.
You can get a sense of the work-life balance around the world by taking a look at how people from different countries value the time they spend not working — that is, how much vacation they typically take every year or the ways they’re encouraged to squeeze the most out of their personal lives around their jobs when they’re not working. As a part of a wave of labor reforms, France has the Right to Disconnect Law, which gives the country’s citizens the right to ignore any work emails that arrive after business hours — an attempt to help the French people clearly establish a work-life balance.
Taiwan enacted a law at the very beginning of 2017 that requires all of the country’s workers to take two days off per week; not necessarily contiguous or weekend days. In a nation known for a strong work ethic, the law is meant to ensure that workers are taken care of and that Taiwan’s children receive the care and attention they deserve from historically often-overworked parents.
Some countries really value giving laborers designated time to rest and relax. Whereas in the United States paid vacation time hovers around only 16 days a year on average (and even still, workers sometimes opt out of the time off they’ve earned because not showing up to work regularly is so stigmatized in American work culture), countries like Italy mandate that employees take at least 20 days of paid vacation a year (in addition to 10 national holidays), and England guarantees five weeks.
Parental leave is another big aspect of benefits in other countries. Over in Iceland, the government has instituted lenient parental leave policies that allow both parents of a newborn child to take three months each — at 80 percent of their salaries — and then split an extra three months of leave between them. Just a short hop across the Atlantic, the Scandinavian countries are renowned for their generous family leave policies (among a whole host of other social benefits). The Swedes get 480 days of paid time off when they birth or adopt children. These countries — and others like the Netherlands, France, Canada and Germany — work the fewest number of hours on average, according to the OECD.
On The Clock
How employees and workers portion their time throughout the day offers insights into work culture around the world. For example, the Swedish fika, or coffee break, is a staple of the country’s daily grind. Whether formalized at particular points throughout the work day — like at 9 or 10 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon — or a more casual, fluid get-together, fika is built on the Swedish idea that productivity is highest when employees have a chance to relax and let off some steam. The breaks are a time for light conversation and camaraderie with coworkers that is thought to build morale.
Similarly, you might have heard of the Spanish siesta and envied the world-famous midday nap that seems to be characteristic of Iberian culture. While it is true that Spaniards often take a descanso, or “break,” in the mid-afternoon — often to run errands or take a long lunch — less than half of the country’s working population actually uses the time to sleep. This work culture custom is more of a relic of Spain’s history than it is a representation of the sleepy behavior of an entire country (and the afternoon break is not exclusive to Spain, either). On average, Spaniards don’t work less time than their European counterparts; their days are just more spread out. Even still, the concept of a two-hour break to rest and recharge in the middle of the day is not likely to be one that would fly in a strict, straight-edged work culture.
The rules and standards around the value of time are similarly looser in a place like Italy, where punctuality is less essential than it is in, say, the United States. It’s not outrageous in India to be 15 minutes late or in Brazil to be even a half-hour late to a gathering. And meetings in the Arab world tend to spend ample time on pleasantries and personal connection instead of jumping right into business, which can be seen as impolite. When it comes to deadlines, be cautious setting them in South Africa, as the people in this country often view these project endpoints as more flexible suggestions rather than hard restrictions.
Knowing the norms and nuances of worldwide work culture can build your cultural competence on many levels. You might think that work is work anywhere you go, but getting a job abroad is a great immersion experiment that can open you up to brand new perspectives on living — while you’re earning a living.