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Long Cherished, the Shorter Workweek Loses Ground in Europe

Stephen O'Brien puts in long hours: he typically shows up by 7:30 a.m. at the convenience store he owns and manages in Dún Laogahire, Ireland, and it's rare that he finishes before 7 p.m. Layoffs have meant that he and others are picking up duties once distributed across a more robust staff.

Jamie Grill | Getty Images

"I'm pulling longer hours than ever before," says Mr. O'Brien, whose store is in an upscale suburb of Dublin. "I'm doing seven days a week, rather than five."

Europeans have long enjoyed laws that reined in the length of their workweek, not to mention provided ample vacation time. But more Europeans, worried about employment, are clocking longer days amid the Continent's deep economic woes. Indeed, since the crisis hit, aggregate working hours for full-time workers have increased across the European Union, according to Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, an EU labor research body based in Dublin.

Europeans now work an average of 39.7 hours per week, up from 39.5 in 2009. While not a huge leap in aggregate, a long-hours culture now prevails in many EU countries. In the UK, employees now face an average working week of 40.5 hours, while in Luxembourg, the average workweek is 40.7 hours.The days of the 35-hour week, with 9-to-5 jobs, appears to be over.

The trend of increased hours runs across the majority of EU nations, whether they are in recession, like Greece and Ireland, or still expanding, like Germany.

The only countries seeing a decrease in hours are the so-called "new member states," former Eastern Bloc countries that joined the EU in 2004, whose working practices are slowly coming into line with EU norms. Among these post-2004 members, the average working week is 40.3 hours.

Eurofound's Måns Mårtensson gives a simple explanation for the rise in hours in the rest of Europe: "We're trying to hang on to the jobs we've got."

Less Credit, Tighter Wallets

Outside of Dublin, O'Brien has been hit by a double-whammy: banks have cut back on credit to business, and customers have become more pennywise. Convenience stores like his are caught right in the middle.

"The banks are pulling back on credit," he says. "Before, they'd give you a call if something was wrong. Now they just bounce things left, right, and center, which creates a problem with suppliers."

During Ireland's long "Celtic Tiger" boom, convenience stores mushroomed, selling newspapers, cigarettes, candy, and deli lunches, as well as staples such as bread, milk, and toiletries. Today, says O'Brien, "people aren't spending as much. They tend to go to the big supermarkets."

While the US is not experiencing a boom, it's economy at least is not in recession. Much of Europe, by contrast, is not only in the doldrums, but stuck in a slow-moving crisis.

Endless working days are a cause of concern for some. An August 2012 study of nearly 11 million insurance holders, released by Germany's largest health insurer, AOK, warned that the increasing overlap of work and personal life has led to a doubling of recorded mental illness incidences in Germany since 1994.

The report said the stress of demands by employers for flexibility, mobility, and constant availability had led to workers taking an average of 22.5 days off, double the amount for other illnesses.

Berlin-based computer programmer Marco Schubert says Germans are expected to work hard, but he draws the line at interfering with his personal life.

"I think in Germany, there's a pressure of immediate delivery – everything has to be done right away," he says. "There's more a higher level of quality supervision in Germany than in other countries. It can get hectic.

"I'm not reachable all the time – I'm a software developer, so when I'm done, I'm done," he continues. "I don't get business calls in my free time. I think it really depends on the sort of company you work for in Germany. My company has a strict 40-hours-a-week policy, and if we have to do overtime, we can offset it."

Not Recording Every Hour

US-born, Irish-based labor economist Michael Taft notes that part-time work and unpaid overtime may account for different work pressures in different sectors.

"In the business services sector, people will work 50 or more hours per week, but that won't be recorded, whereas in the industrial sector people clock-in and clock-out," he says.

Taft also says structural differences may account for differences between countries.

"In the advanced northern European countries, the collective bargaining agreements have negotiated reduced hours. Also, the workers are [often] in capital-intensive sectors rather than labor-intensive, low-tech jobs."

Eurofound's Mårtensson said there was a discrepancy between agreed working hours and actual working hours, with employees working longer than stated in union agreements or enshrined in legislation.

He also said informal agreements between employers and employees were predominating over formal "social partnership" agreements between unions, the state, and business sectors, all of which have now been scrapped, other than in Ireland, where it applies only to government workers and is under political pressure.

"The social collaboration between workers and employers is one of trying to keep people in employment, but it's all informal. Ireland is the last one [with a formal agreement in place], but we see more real collaboration than ever before," he says.

Some have poured cold water on the statistics. Stephen Kinsella, an economist at Ireland's University of Limerick, says it is difficult to make direct comparisons across the EU.

"It's almost impossible to compare a worker in a pharmacy in Germany with a worker in a pharmacy in Ireland – they may not be doing the same kind of job," he says, adding that self-reporting of working hours is also problematic, as people may claim to work harder than they actually do.

And hours worked do not correlate with economic success, according to the study: despite having a healthy and still growing economy, Finns work the fewest hours in the EU, at just 37.8, while Romanians top the list at 41.3. Greeks work 40 hours per week while Germans work slightly more at 40.6. But the two countries' economic performance couldn't be more different: Germany is Europe's powerhouse, post-crash Greece is the poorhouse.

A similar tale is told by annual leave: Hungarians get 27 days off per year, including public holidays. Greeks get 33, the French 38, and Germans 40. The EU average is 34.2.

"The Germans seem to take longer holidays and work shorter hours, yet their industrial output is higher than [that of] the rest of us," says Mårtensson.

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