How hardworking are the Swiss?

The protestant ethic? Swiss working culture is renowned for being hardworking. Keystone / Mint Images

Switzerland has a reputation as a hardworking, punctual, and precise country. But does the picture stand up to a reality check? We looked at the data and compared with other countries.

This content was published on July 6, 2020 - 11:00

By global comparison, the Swiss work less

Researchers from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands gathered data showing how many hours per employee were worked across countries and continents. According to their comparison, it seems clear that in the global context, the Swiss work less than others.

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Here, Switzerland follows the worldwide trend: as income levels go up, working time goes down. That is, apart from a few clear exceptions – in Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, where despite very high average incomes, hours worked are more similar to China.

The US also stands out. Even though incomes are just slightly different, American employees work on average much more each year than Swiss employees.

Much of this has to do with the fact that employees in Switzerland enjoy more contractually guaranteed time off – here, a minimum of four weeks paid holidays is legally inscribed, which is not the case in the US.

However, the Swiss are not keen to venture beyond this four-week concession. To the astonishment of international media, for example, citizens rejected the idea of “six weeks' holiday for all” in a 2012 national vote.

By European comparison, Swiss full-timers work longer

Since the yearly figures depend on income levels and on legal conditions for paid leave, the logical next step is to compare Switzerland to countries similar to it on these points – that is, European countries.

However, the picture depends heavily on which figures and measurement methods are used.

First, we can look at a graphic showing the average weekly working hours for full-time employees across various European nations. The statistics display a “normal” working week and do not depend on how many days of paid leave are offered in each country.

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As opposed to the global picture, here we see Switzerland – with 42 hours and 24 minutes – clearly at the top of the list. Only people in Iceland, Romania, Great Britain, Malta and Luxembourg also work more than 40 hours per week. Even the Germans – hardly renowned for being lazy – work quite a bit less than their southern Alpine neighbours.

Although rising wealth over the past decades led to a growth in demand for free time in Switzerland, the hours worked in a regular week decreased less markedly than in comparable nations.

Jan-Egbert Sturm, economics professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and head of the KOF institute, explains: “Swiss culture is a work culture, and from a certain point of view, it is still quite Calvinist. Hard work is seen as being a very good quality.”

Many (women) work part-time

But the global statistics don’t only take into account full-time workers; they encompass all workers. And when we look at the European picture for both full- and part-time work, we see something closer to what appeared in the first graphic.

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With the inclusion of part-time workers, the effective weekly hours worked in Switzerland sinks to 35 hours and 36 minutes – putting it in the lower category of European countries.

What’s the reason for this? Do most Swiss workers feel that the 42-hour working week is too much? Are they not so hard-working after all?

Indeed, by European comparison in Switzerland a large share of workers are part-time. But there is also a clear gender gap: it’s mainly women who work part-time.

This is also a cultural characteristic, says Sturm. “Switzerland adheres to a very traditional pattern, whereby men work full-time and women, though they are working more than before, are mostly not full-time.”

Many are active, if not all paid

But even when part-time work is included in the picture, others are still missing from the statistics. And when these non-active folk are brought in, Switzerland is suddenly back up towards the top of the table again.

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On average in Switzerland, each person over the age of 15 works some 23 hours and 12 minutes – a calculation that also includes the unemployed, housewives, househusbands, and others, who don’t do paid work. Seen through this lens, the only country that works (clearly) harder than Switzerland is Iceland.

The Federal Statistical Office reckons that because of the high employment rate in Switzerland, there are not many people who don’t work at all. Sturm says something similar: “Switzerland’s high performance in these statistics is grounded in the fact that the participation rate is so high. In Switzerland, many people work.”

With demographic shifts on the horizon, it will also be important that those age categories who can work, do so. And this is not only the case for Switzerland. Across Europe and many countries in the world, populations are aging, and pressure on social welfare systems is growing.

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