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Why Canada's ‘slacker’ workweek is not necessarily a bad thing

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It's summer and Canadians are taking their well-earned vacations. Then again, maybe they are not so well-earned after all. According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canadians put in what seems like slacker hours compared to the rest of the world.

Okay, maybe "slacker" is a bit unkind, but the OECD data (which is pulled from 2011 or latest available year) shows that only 3.9 per cent of Canadians reported working "very long hours," defined as more than 50 hours a week. That's the ninth-lowest of the 36 countries surveyed, and much lower than countries like Australia (where 14 per cent of workers put in 50-plus hours a week), the United Kingdom (12.1 per cent), the United States (11.1 per cent), France (9 per cent) and even Greece (5.2 per cent). Then again, long hours are much less common in countries like the Netherlands (0.66 per cent), Sweden (1.2 per cent) and Denmark (2 per cent).

So how do we interpret the data? The OECD takes a sunny view of it, noting that while it is not necessarily a bad thing to put in a long week if you enjoy the work, it is a phenomenon more often seen in countries with high income inequality. It is also a function of the general economy and of wage levels: the figures do include overtime, which is something that is going to be sought after in a world where paycheques are not going far enough. As much as Canadians would argue that they are stretched, most measures suggest there is a higher percentage of Americans who are having a hard time paying their bills.

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Culture is arguably part of how many hours workers put in, particularly in white-collar jobs which typically do not pay overtime. As weak as the Canadian economy may sometimes seem, let's remember that our recession and its aftermath were less brutal than in a lot of other places, including the U.S. That's why in 2011, a relatively low percentage of Canadians apparently felt pushed to put in face time. Our higher rate of unionization – 31.5 per cent of Canadian employees belonged to a union in 2012, compared with 11.3 per cent of U.S. workers – arguably means that there are more people who can afford to leave at the official end of the day.

And what about the productivity side of things. Would the economy actually be better off if we all put in a few more hours, paid or unpaid? That's a hard one. Staying after hours just to show you're there does very little for the bottom line – but neither does being a nation of clock-watchers.

The truth is, there is no ideal score or number that would show how productive Canada is or that Canadians are happy and engaged at their jobs. True productivity is measured by how much you produce per hour, not how many hours you put in total. In an ideal world, Canada's productivity on the job would be much higher than it is these days, and companies would be happy to let people leave on time, and happy to wave them away in the summer, too. That's not where we are, but it is something to dream about on vacation.

Linda Nazareth is the principal of Relentless Economics Inc. and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

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