Overworked Brits?

A new study from the International Labor Organization came to some interesting conclusions about the percentage of people working “excessively” long weeks (more than 48 hours). Here’s what caught my eye:

In terms of those countries with the highest incidence of long working hours for 2004-05 (defined as more than 48 hours per week), Peru topped the list at 50.9 per cent of workers, the Republic of Korea [South Korea -EL] at 49.5 per cent, Thailand at 46.7 per cent (Note 3), and Pakistan at 44.4 per cent . In developed countries, where working hours are typically shorter, the United Kingdom stood at 25.7 per cent, Israel at 25.5 per cent, Australia at 20.4 per cent, Switzerland at 19.2 per cent, and the United States at 18.1 per cent.

Fundamentally, I think that the study has a faulty premise: there’s nothing wrong with people working a long week. In fact, the willingness of people to work long weeks in developed countries where everyone’s basic needs are met shows that people derive meaning from their jobs.

But anyway, that some poorer countries would have long work weeks isn’t surprising. The very poorest countries still have large percentages of their workforces in subsistence agriculture and thus don’t get captured at all in work week data. South Korea and the U.S. tend to top lists for workforce participation (the percentage of adults who work in any way) and average work week length. Australia is the only developed country with a labor market as flexible as the United States so it’s not surprising that it would create more opportunities for overtime and so forth.

My question is what the U.K. and Switzerland are doing on the list. Relative to the U.S. and Australia, both have reasonably inflexible labor markets overall. Australia and the U.S., likewise, are the only developed countries where most employers don’t have a legal obligation to provide paid vacation or leave.

Everything I have observed about British office culture suggests that it’s much more laid back than its American counterpart. So what’s going on? Any ideas?