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National holidays and work weeks are not always an indication of how hard people work

October 3, 2007

Yesterday was Gandhi Jayanti, one of the three national holidays that we have. The other two are Independence Day and Republic Day.
Is that all?
Yep, because a national holiday is “simply a statutory holiday enacted by a country to commemorate the country itself”. It can also be called a legal holiday or a public holiday.
If we compare India’s three measly national holidays to the national holidays of the world, India looks good, in the sense of taking very few holidays.

But as we all know, this number three is misleading. As it says here:

India has a paltry three national holidays, but celebrates festivals of various faiths. If you’re flexible when it comes to religion, you might persuade your bosses to do without you for the Hindu festivals of Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi and Holi, and the Muslim festivals of Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha and Ramadan, making a total of 32 days, plus further regional days.

So do we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we aren’t workaholics like the Brits? The minimum number of holidays that Indians get are given here and they are at least 15.

We could be workaholics after all!
But wait, this isn’t the end of the story. Lots of people in India work saturdays. Sure, multi-nationals, technology companies, banks and many schools give a five day week, but government offices work two saturdays a month (half-days). Many colleges work saturdays and so do many private companies. Some work five and a half days.
But in any case, these official work timings are only on paper, at least in India. As I had written in a previous post, people tend to work much harder in actuality…most of the time voluntarily. 12 hour days are common. So is working at home on Sundays or going to see ‘what’s happening’ in the office on Saturdays.
Few people follow office timings strictly, not unless they want to be get left behind. Staying late at the office has become a method of proving one’s efficiency and/or sincerity! Week-ends unfortunately aren’t sacrosanct in India. This is why it is difficult to compare our official working hours per week (which can add up to 40 hours a week) with the rest of the world.

As far as I know Europeans do think of their week-ends as sacrosanct, although I have read that in the United States its less so and few people follow the 40 hour work week.

Interestingly, another growing economy like ours, China, has a five day week – 8 hours per day with a maximum of 44 hours per week allowed. I have a strong feeling that just like in India, Chinese employees work much harder than the mandatory hours laid down. However China has implemented a system which makes it mandatory for employers to give 8-10 days off holidays thrice a year. This annual holiday thing has led to a huge increase in domestic tourism!
One needs these kind of breaks…!

Too much work is making people sick
In India, the pace at which people work is causing major health problems (which I will be writing about in another post). Workaholism is so much a part and parcel of society that people who leave the office at five can become the laughing stock, unless they are in a clerical job. These are the cultural attitudes here. Its a culture similar to other Asian countries like South Korea.
now South Korea has banned a 6- day week, but its likely that people still put in long hours. The term ‘death by work’ is a recognized illness, both in South Korea and Japan. The Japanese work very long hours too, although their work hours have decreased.

Are we moving in the opposite direction?
I wish we could all move towards a compulsory five day week, but unfortunately we may be moving in the opposite direction! With the dollar falling against the rupee, profits have decreased for our technology companies, and to make up the business losses, technology companies are thinking of revoking their official five day weeks! The plan is to do it gradually, maybe start with those working on new projects or with new recruits. And offer additional payment…

It does seem as if we are going backwards as some countries in Europe work just 35-40 hours and four days a week. And they take it seriously. Accepting official calls is a no-no on week-ends, but in India not accepting an official call is disapproved of. Hardly anyone does it anyway…

But on another note, going to the office on saturdays is usually fine with people as long as its voluntary, even though it is due to pressure from society and the work culture prevalent around them. When saturdays become official working days, people might grumble, specially those who are used to taking full week-ends off once a month at the very least. I guess they can console themselves by thinking of the thousands of their countrymen who put in six days and 12 hours a day in any case.

(Graph from the Economist)

Related Reading: Indians have long working hours
Do members of Parliament work as hard as the rest of us?

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2007 11:13 am

    Nita: Interesting post.

    In the UK, although we work the fabled longest hours in Europe, there are many public and bank holidays. They vary slightly across England & Wales, NI and Scotland but more or less the same. In England, we have 3 bank holidays (2 in May, 1 in August), 1 New Year’s day holiday, 1 Good Friday, 1 Easter Monday, 1 for Christmas, 1 for Boxing Day (the day after Xmas when the sales start!).

    By law people have 20 paid holidays minimum although many executives (people in senior ranks in organisations usually with fiduciary roles) often have more, which I doubt they take all of. I know someone who enjoys 32 days of annual paid leave and it will rise by 1 day per 2 years of service to a max of 40 days (2 working months). A friend who is a partner in a mega-US consulting firm has the flexibility to take time off whenever he likes for however long he likes as long as he meets his revenue goals.

    Also there is no cap on sick leave. And people cannot usually be fired if on sick leave.

    Contrast this with the US where most employers are now offering a floating account of 3 weeks (15 days or if you are optimistic 23 including weekend days occurring) in which you schedule vacation, sickness (!) and religion.

    In France, the whole of Paris vanishes in August. You can avoid the mad French drivers on Champs des Elysees but there is nobody even to serve you coffee.

    I think holidays are highly variable but I do agree that there is a correlation with health. There is however, I believe, an inflexion curve and beyond a certain number of days, its benefits rapidly reduce.

    And people like me – self-employed, mature graduate students with a life outside University – NEVER get any holidays! 😦 Holidays mean I have to consider term time, potential loss of income from projects, budgets for spending on the holiday and catch up on all lost work without any assistance, not to mention return home to a pile of unattended post and bills. There are term breaks but most graduate students work on their own steam so we do not really care about them..


  2. Bharath permalink
    October 3, 2007 2:35 pm

    //”official work timings are only on paper”//

    Very true Nita, Great n Interesting post again! It’s not wondering thing that Most of We most indians are workoholic.. It’s not only making people sick healthwise but also familywise. I have seen even senior managers who have family with kids working overnight mostly!

    I would like to share One funny thing which happened to me with my customer as I deal with Fingerprint Attendance machines.. Customer asked me – How to create “work shift” for more than 24 hour in Attendance software?? and I said – What!!! Is it possible? and He says he has shift wherein people have to work more than 24 hours.. hmmmmmmm… Oh My God! This is India!

    Usually most HR speak out against it usually but rarely they put honest efforts to eradicate it. I feel Working overtime or Working on Holidays should be strictly taken into Negative feedback account.

  3. October 3, 2007 4:26 pm

    Shefaly thanks for sharing that word view. 🙂

    Bharath, I too was wishing just today that there were more than 24 hours in a day! Not because I work 24 hour shifts, but because I want more leisure time! As for the HR, they go with the company culture…which today seems to tell you that unless you work till you are almost about to collapse you ain’t no good!!

  4. October 3, 2007 4:58 pm

    Well. I work 50 hours a week and have worked as much as 70 hours a week on average. Most businesses in America only have five paid holidays. Vacations normally are one week after working a year and two weeks vacation after working for three years. Part-time, 35 hours a week or less, there are no benefits.

  5. October 3, 2007 5:54 pm

    lol!you forgot the personal holidays institutions give….but think of the daily wage worker….

  6. October 3, 2007 6:26 pm

    Nice Post Nita and a very good blog,

    I would like to comment on this line

    ‘In India, the pace at which people work is causing major health problems’

    This is only true in the Private sector. The central government employees are a class of their own. I do not like to generalize but there are very few central government officials you will find in their seats during working hours. This is especially true in West Bengal. The clerks in the institute that i used to study were hardly ever there in their offices. They would come in the morning and sign up and then disappear. If any officer ever voiced his concern about this, there would be the workers union protests the next day. The work culture was truly ridiculous. But privatization will surely change this. I have seen that State Bank of India (central government) branch across the street from our institute which previously had lazy and rude clerks suddenly became efficient and polite after a private centurion bank was opened nearby and which was luring away customers with their efficient and courteous crew. So there is hope, but i do hope that the other extreme which is over working in private sector is reduced as effects of it will give rise to future social problems.

  7. October 3, 2007 6:32 pm

    Brian, thanks for telling us about America! I guess no one really follows the mandatory work week!

    yeah I guess employees have their sick leaves and other stuff as well…but these are limited in nature and it does tend to vary with different organisations…
    About the daily wage workers…theirs is a sorry plight. no work no pay!

    I cannot agree with you more. You have brought out a crucial point! Something that bothers us all. Thanks.

  8. October 3, 2007 7:32 pm

    Ok what work? When I was an engineering student and I just emerged from the class on Mechanics, I saw these construction workers outside my college demolishing a building. It was very evident that they were using the hammers in a totally wrong way. (Over)smart that I am was, I approached them to show the right way to strike the surface (angle and arm movements). It was miraculous they told me later, almost doubling their effectiveness.
    As you know, Japan, US and most of Western Europe are already in what is termed as ‘knowledge economy’. Work done in a knowledge economy is not comparable to that in a transitioning economy such as India. I firmly believe that if we spend 1% of our annual work hours in training, we could shorten the work by as high as 30% (just my random estimate). That would increase our speed and accuracy and we can focus more somewhere else.
    So, while I agree with you that we spend longer hours at work, I don’t really believe that we do “hard work” 😉 you know what I mean?

  9. October 3, 2007 8:42 pm

    Sure you are right Priyank. We are more inefficient…and everything adds to our inefficiency, not just lack of training. Poor infrastructure for example. A simple thing like writing a post probably takes me more time that it does you….because of unreliable internet connections, unreliable electricity etc.
    But yes the result is that we have to work longer hours to produce the same result!

  10. Vipul permalink
    October 4, 2007 10:28 pm

    Hi Nita,
    Stumbled upon this blog a few weeks back and really enjoy reading it (at work!) …

    I believe another major cause for long hours in India is poor work culture, which, though improving, results in inefficiencies and poor prioritization. In the west, people have a higher respect for their personal time and are better at judiciously saying ‘no’ to their bosses. I feel that in India this is not the case, partly due to personality and partly due to insecurity. Somehow our value system implies that ‘sincerity’ = never saying to the boss.

    In the US, most employees that work late in the evenings will be of Indian or Asian origin. The American colleagues are generally long gone. Exceptional circumstances apart, when this becomes the usual trend it does say something about the work ethic. This does generally get better once they learn the ways of the west.

    Just some thoughts …

  11. October 5, 2007 7:55 am

    Maybe its insecurity that makes Indian workers abroad work longer hours. And here too I am sure that must be a reason….but there are reasons too…like the hierarchy for example. Saying no to the boss is difficult I guess. Also if the general work culture is work late then it becomes the done thing. A person who doesn’t do it tends to be the odd one out!
    Also because of the long hours, people here do take coffee breaks…dinner breaks etc. Also working 10-12 hours regularly also creates fatigue and without proper week-ends people don’t feel fresh on mondays.

  12. October 5, 2007 12:16 pm

    “Maybe its insecurity that makes Indian workers abroad work longer hours.”

    Nita: The real reason, in my observation, is that most Asians really have few hobbies outside work. In other words, they have no life! Plus many of them do not socialise outside their own ethnic groups. So it is a collective, Nash equilibrium of sorts to work long hours.

    Harsh as it is, this is more likely a cause than job related insecurity. Most Asians and Indians are hard-working, conscientious and well-educated, and reliable workers and in meritocratic settings, not as ‘insecure’ as it may look. The US – esp where Asians and Indians abound – is largely meritocratic though pockets of discrimination and racism can be found anywhere.

    Also new immigrants work longer hours than older ones. The latter are likely to have settled in, made friends and developed a life.


  13. October 5, 2007 3:16 pm

    Shefaly, if Indians abroad have fewer hobbies…it could be that the reason is because they are workaholics rather than the other way round! Maybe its a cultural thing as well…i don’t know what happens there really. but here –
    people feel they have to make money and make it, thats the main priority in life and thats what makes them workaholics. this is bound to remain a very strong motivation once they become immigrants as well.
    Also I have heard that Indians abroad have organised social do’s and the like…so in fact they tend to have friends and connection automatically, just by lieu of them being of a race. Asian communities there tend to be well knit I think.

  14. October 5, 2007 4:22 pm

    Nita: There are some reasons why I believe lack of ‘a life’ outside work leads to longer working hours.

    if one keeps working long after one’s clients, colleagues and competitors have gone home, it suggests either the person has no life outside work, or the person is a slow worker/ inefficient/ unable to manage time or to prioritise. The latter will inevitably mean getting the sack. 🙂 So the former is a more generous explanation.

    The second thing may be a cultural fit thing and work as refuge from themselves. Besides weekends are sacrosanct in both Europe and now increasingly in the US. That is a cultural thing which some Indians and Chinese enjoy, but most do not. It forces them to think about how to fill the free time that they have never had to encounter before (considering when we were students, we mostly studied all the time or did things that would pad up the CV; yes I know it is harsh; some of us truly enjoyed things we did and as you can tell, I loved debating, public speaking, quizzes and JAMs). In the new week, people ask “so what did you do on the weekend?”. Some of my Indian friends in the US reported squirming because they did nothing worth telling others… So while some took on new interests, others just stayed cocooned in their shells, or worse working on weekends. Some employers in Europe frown upon people working too much or not taking holidays!

    As for organised social events amongst Indians etc, I suppose migrant groups have those. But not all migrants participate (I know I do not, except with my IIMA friends and now my growing tribe of Cambridge friends is overtaking that preference). Over on Amreekandesi blog, Madhuri mentioned that even in such groups, people tend to stick to those they already know.. Beats the point, does it not? I have noticed this here too.

    I think many 1st gen migrants from India have not had adventurous lives. They have instead had sheltered, privileged and cushioned lives. Nothing wrong with that except that when they come to live in a culture, where people leave home at 16, take gap years to travel around the world, have serious non-work interests (one 23-year old girl I know is a mad scuba diver and was scuba diving in her pregnancy too!), they flounder. Then they seek refuge in work.

    I have seen this as a chance to explore. When I lived in Switzerland, I went hiking every weekend, rain or shine. I also went to France with friends, a lot, a lot. I travelled within the continent too. In London, barring nowadays, I visit art galleries, museums, concerts; I learn things; or just go for walks in the woods. And I read an awful lot. When I stayed summers in the US, I went hiking, travelling, walking, museum-visiting (in DC particularly where a tonne of Smithsonians with free entry exist). In India however on my annual visits, I find little enthusiasm amongst people except for shopping (yeuch!), eating out (ok) and cinema (which is ok too). Newbies in Bangalore for instance have never explored Bangalore’s parks nor its few museums.

    I think fundamentally we do not cultivate other interests and since we supposedly migrated for our careers and jobs, that is all we end up doing… A waste of opportunity methinks :-/

  15. Bharath permalink
    October 5, 2007 5:02 pm

    “Money” is crucial factor here.. Common Indian is running behind money.. very less time for personal interests/hobbies.. Surrival Fittest.. Unfortunately we have been looted in past!

    Bharath, money is all that people think of nowadays! they don’t even want kids unless they have a nice frost-free fridge, lcd tv and whatever…

  16. October 5, 2007 5:06 pm

    Shefaly you seem to have a wonderful life. 🙂 Looks like there are a lot of opportunities there too. We went to the mumbai museum in mumbai recently and it was terrible. dirty, congested and not much worth seeing. you can’t go to public libraries either. Hiking yes, lot of people in India go hiking. At least mumbai/pune side. and people do visit parks, galleries etc. at least out here. the problem is that those places are so packed!! people here unfortunately have few places to go for some peace and quiet due to the crowds…the rich ofcourse can do a lot more.
    i am sure thought that many first gen people who to out there are different…many have left due to money constraints. a cousin told me that she was surprised to go to the US to find that NO woman in her entire neighbourhood could drive!
    Another of my pals in canada told me its frustrating to be typecast as a lot of indians are of a certain kind. in the us you have more educated people yes, but often they are first gen educated. even comparing class to class ofcourse there are cultural differences…
    a lot of the elite don’t go out there to settle actually. as for scuba diving and all of that only the filthy rich here would be able to do that. In fact the concept of true leisure is a luxury for most indians. leisure comes only later in a nation’s developement, when basic needs are satisfed. you have to grow up with these needs satisfied or else the insecurity will always remain.

  17. October 5, 2007 5:25 pm

    Nita: Thanks. In my early professional life, I lived in many cities in India. As I found, I knew more of the cities, when I left, than some who had lived there all their lives. Braving the crowds is part of India is it not? 🙂 I have lived in Bombay only a bit but even places like Delhi, where there is a lot to see and do, people still prefer shopping and disco-dancing (and malls and discos are likely to be packed with more people than galleries I think…)

    I do not know what it is, but I do find it in myself to find everything about a place and to do something there, failing which a good chai-ki-dukan which serves samosa, or a cafe, or a park bench and a book will also do.

    But your point about leisure in the development cycle of a nation is very right. Sometimes I feel that the sense of insecurity lingers too long even when we are doing fine. Why might that be, I do not know.


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