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Britain is among the least work-oriented countries in the world—but that may not be enough to explain its flat-lining productivity



Faced with surging interest rates and the deepest cost-of-living crisis in decades, there’s one thing British workers aren’t willing to give up: their work-life balance.

According to a new study, the U.K. tops a list of 24 countries when it comes to which nation is the least work-oriented.

Around one in four of those surveyed in the U.K. said work is very or rather important to them, new data analyzed by King’s College London’s Policy Institute revealed. That’s a much lower proportion than in the U.S. and France, where 80% and 94% said the same, respectively. 

The research was part of the major World Values Survey, which looks at data on attitudes toward work among participants in developing and developed economies around the world. In the U.K., data was gathered from more than 3,000 adults in 2022. 

Its findings also suggested that many U.K. workers would refuse to place prime importance on work. When participants of the survey were asked whether work should be a top priority, even if it meant less spare time, only 22% of Britons agreed—that’s compared to 39% of respondents in France and 45% in Spain. 

“The U.K. is among the least likely from a wide range of countries to say work is important to their own life, that it should be prioritized over spare time, that hard work leads to success, or that not working makes people lazy,” Bobby Duff, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College and lead investigator of the study said in a blog post on Thursday.

These trends have been true among the British public for three decades, according to the data, but work-life balance is becoming an even bigger priority among the country’s younger and incoming generations of employees.

For instance, the survey results showed that more than half of Millennials and Gen Zers think it’s a good thing that less importance is placed on work, compared to 34% of British Baby Boomers.

Kirstie Hewlett, a research fellow at the Policy Institute, told Fortune that one explanation for the generational variations in how work is viewed is the grim economic conditions that younger workers have witnessed. 

“There are some signs that younger people are become more disillusioned with work, which is perhaps to be expected given the long-term economic and wage stagnation they have experienced,” she said, noting that the proportion of Millennials saying work should always come first fell sharply from 41% in 2009 to 14% in post-pandemic 2022. 

Britain’s productivity problem

As Britain reels from a period of economic turbulence, the country continues to face a productivity problem.

The U.K.’s productivity is lagging behind most of its G7 peers after plateauing in the wake of the Great Financial Crisis.

Data shows that U.K. productivity has inched just 0.4% higher a year since then—less than half of what the 25 richest OECD countries are achieving. 

Reviving productivity as a way to boost economic growth has been a long-time discussion among the country’s policymakers.

But do attitudes toward the workplace hold any clues as to what might help kick-start productivity? Yes and no, Hewlett said. 

While productivity measures may reflect the motivations of Britain’s workforce, it’s also linked to many other factors like skills development and technological investment.

“The relationship between attitudes toward work and national productivity levels doesn’t seem to be very strong in this study,” Hewlett said, highlighting how countries like Germany have higher productivity than the U.K. but also shares similar views on prioritizing leisure. “There’s a risk of drawing a simple but wrong conclusion that ‘lazy Brits’ are damaging productivity.”

The big takeaway is less about a dramatic change in attitude but rather, a greater focus on doing work-life balance right, she argued.

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