A work week of just 35 hours may seem like a dream come true to some, but with the French long portrayed as being portrayed as lazy, leisure-focused, as well as, being highly romanticized by other cultures, it would be understandable to assume that our shorter than average working week is just a laissez-faire attitude by employers towards how many working hours their staff put in. There is even a phrase in French: Si de beaucoup travailler on devenait riche, les ânes auraient le bât doré, which roughly translated means ‘If working hard made you rich, donkeys would be covered in gold’.
Of course, as humorous as this is, it has some basis in truth in the ever-expanding, fast-paced global economy of today. So many of us work incredibly hard to afford even a modest lifestyle. We all understand that overworking ourselves can lead to higher stress levels and increased risks of burnout for employees, so does it really stand to reason that a few less working hours, automatically equates to lower productivity? Or perhaps, has France discovered the key to ‘making the most’ of your time?
Is a 35 hour work week really 35 Hours for Everyone?
While its true to say that the full work week in France is considered to be 35 hours, there are numerous exceptions to this rule, and working hours may be extended through ‘collective agreements’ between employers and employees, which is something that is often not taken into consideration when looking at overall productivity of French workers.
Even with less working hours than some, in France we have comparably similar public holidays and paid holidays to other European countries, while in the US, zero paid leave is guaranteed by the government, workers are instead reliant on their employers to offer such benefits as they see fit.
Interestingly, the French government also offers greater protection for French workers to keep their positions for longer periods of time, with guaranteed hours and an outright ban on ‘zero hours contracts’ which are quite prevalent in places such as the UK. These uncertain working conditions place undue pressure on workers to take on any hours offered to them or potentially miss out on much-needed income in the future.
The Rest of Europe
A number of countries, like the UK, do not put a cap on the total number of hours by allowing an ‘opt out’ of maximum limits and have significantly higher 48 hour work weeks, whereas others, such as, Ireland, rely on the 40 hour model with no workers forced to work more than this.
Germany has even conceded in some instances to a 28 hour work week for up to two years, as in the landmark case between electricians, metal workers, and industry leaders. These disparities in working hours across Europe highlight the difficulties faced by many countries when trying to balance a healthy work environment with sustained economic growth for all industries.
How Does French Productivity Compare?
Many people will claim that the French have greater productivity, thus allowing for shorter working hours. This claim has some credence with France consistently ranking among the top earners per hours worked according to the OECD each year. French workers earned on average $67.8 per hour, placing us in the top ten for 2017. In contrast, the UK hit $53.5, suggesting that longer working hours may not equate to greater productivity.
It’s worth noting, that of the countries that ranked higher than France in 2017, many have even shorter working weeks than we do! The Netherlands has the shortest working hours with just 27.5 hours average per week, supported through encouragement and protections provided by the government, and yet they managed to achieve $69.3 per hour in comparison. Likewise, Norway, Denmark, and Germany have increased their comparative earnings per hour with decreasing working hours, thus lending further weight to the idea that fewer hours may well serve to increase workers productivity while they are at work.
One thing is for sure, in France we place a high value on quality of life. Many of us strive to find the right work/life balance, and the rest of the world has noticed! With tourism booming, travellers are raving about the uniqueness of our French way of life; even our capital Paris has long been considered to be the City of Love.
Needless to say, we put passion into everything we do, from our love of the culinary arts and our never-ending romance with fine wines and cheeses to our vibrant cities with buzzing fashion scenes, we French do know how to live as well as work. Perhaps, that’s the secret to unlocking the greatest proficiency of any workforce; fostering fulfillment in all aspects of life, not just in the office.