Prague, Czech Republic – Despite several studies warning against the detrimental effects of overworking, the trend of working long hours at the expense of our health is growing in many countries around the globe.
And yet, there are significant cultural differences in how we approach our work-life balance. While some countries like Denmark or Germany have an average of 32.4 and 34.3 hours per week respectively, other countries like Greece or Czechia put more time pressure on their working citizens approaching the 40-hour work week.
In contrast to France and Norway, where strong labour unions have workers’ backs, the popularity of Czech trade unions is dropping. Their membership has declined by 75% between 1995-2009. This is likely explained by the negative perception of unions inherited from the state socialist period as being extended hands of the communist party.
The newly released single Goodbye Prague by the Czech artists VIZO aims to draw attention to the culture of overworking by featuring clerks as anonymous animals going about their hamster wheel routines.
Its creators Marek Vacha and Frantisek Brych come from Prague, where the nine to five workdays are frequently stretched to nine to eight or all nighters.
Missing out on after-work beers with your colleagues can lead to lost opportunities to ask your boss for feedback, or chat about the pay rise you’ve not had the chance to ask for during office hours.
“I get up in the morning, switch off the alarm, brush my teeth, go to work, I go for a beer with work colleagues, I go home, I go to sleep. I don’t want to do that anymore” says musician and spokesperson for Prague Institute of Planning and Development Marek Vacha. He believes that the recent lockdown restrictions prove there are other possible ways of fulfilling our work duties without having to sit in an office for eight hours straight.
The song Goodbye Prague was brought to life in a caravan outside of the city as the artists recognized their own burnout with the never-ending “work-to-sleep-to-work-to-drink” routine, which seems to be a national phenomenon regardless of age.
Burned out at 21
“I would wake up, go to a cafe and write a list of everything I had to do that day, that week, that month,” says 21-year old Jan from Prague. Three years ago, his health started deteriorating as a result of overworking. He was still in high school, managing 25 NGO volunteers and preparing for university.
His individual study plan allowed him to shuffle studying and working, which, despite being unpaid, was a full-time load.
“When I started experiencing migraines, I decided to take a week off. I still did some work at home, until I woke up one morning feeling extremely dizzy. I tried to reach for a glass of water and I fell straight to the floor”
What Jan was experiencing was a full-blown burn-out; a syndrome stemming from chronic stress related to employment now officially recognised by the World Health Organization.
As a result, Jan fell out-out with his father and his grandmother “It felt like everything was crumbling down, I felt hopeless. At one point I even thought of jumping off a bridge”.
“When you invest all your energy into something you care about, it’s easy to get carried away”.
Part of Jan’s current work is to educate teachers how to not succumb to overwork and break away from the culture of overworking as Czech teachers are amongst the lowest paid in Europe, along with their counterparts in neighbouring Poland and Slovakia.
Work uncertainty in the Czech Republic
Even though Czechs work long hours, their work is relatively cheap. The Czech minimum wage is currently at 575 euros a month, whereas for the same work Germans receive 1574 euros. With these comparatively low wages, the Czechs have managed to keep their’ competitiveness and stay attractive to foreign markets. This has contributed to their 1.9%, unemployment, one of the lowest in Europe. But at a price.
Many Czechs fear uncertainty in employment, a feeling that is deeply rooted in modern Czech history. “Our grandparents and parents lived through rough times of precariousness. Growing up I was always told to be grateful for having any work” says Brych from VIZO.
Precarious work opportunities are especially relevant for women who decide to take maternity leave. Czech parents may take up to 28-week-long parental leave, which causes serious set-backs for mothers like lower salary and settling in less skilled roles.
Long maternity leaves may in part explain why Czechia suffers from one of the highest gender pay gaps in Europe with women earning 20% less than men, while the average European gender pay gap is 14.8%.
Many Czechs still view child-caring as a predominantly female responsibility. The Czech Radio surveyed people in the street and found that many attribute higher paying jobs to men due to their “ambitious and aggressive” characteristics whereas women are more suited for positions as “cleaners” and get “sidelined” throughout motherhood.
One manager admits it is unfair but sees men as being more stable employees, as women tend to take maternity leave and the company has to find replacement. He also says that women will often agree to lower wage offers than men. “That’s her decision, that’s business”, he says.
Looking at the low wages and traditional approaches towards family roles, it should not be of much surprise that Czechs end up working longer hours than they should.
The Schwartz system
Then there is the so-called “Schwartz system”, which refers to the practice of hiring independent contractors, rather than employees. Over 2 million people, or approximately in 1 out of 5 Czechs are registered as self-employed.
Doing so means that employers do not have to pay social security fees for their employees. This means many workers are forced to become entrepreneurs and compete for jobs without long-term job security. Which, according to psychologist Jakub Kuchar, leads to “more work-related stress and lack of financial security” which can be the catalyst for “a full-blown burn-out”.
Despite governmental efforts to eradicate this, the Schwartz system continues to grow in popularity not just among companies but also employees for whom self-employment (theoretically) means more autonomy in terms of work hours.
And those who are self-employed work on average five hours more than regular employees.
From sleep-to-work-to-drink-to-the countryside
So where do Czechs go to find their peace and balance? It is estimated that there are about half a million second homes in Czechia. Since vacationing abroad during state socialism was inaccessible for most, Czechs instead retreated to their second homes resulting in every 8th Czech owning a cottage, or cabin outside of their cities.
“During the past regime, people would frequently use their second homes not only as a means to relax but also as an escape from the everyday totalitarian reality, which was much more prevalent within cities”, explains geographer Dana Fialova who specializes in second home culture in Czechia.
“The days of the regime may be over, but many Czechs tend to create their own totalitarian hamster wheel routines ” she explains. It should thus be of no surprise that 34% of the population feels at risk of work-related burn-out.
For music producer Vacha, the countryside provides necessary mental health recovery: “Venturing out of the city prolongs my life.”
But only time will show whether the post-Covid era will change peoples‘ work habits or whether the Czechs will continue to overwork turning to their national coping mechanism of going to the pub, their countryside home, or both.
By Anna Kosler
Czech-born, Scandinavian-raised, and Edinburgh-based journalist with a background in social psychology, Anna is an international freelance-writer on political, social, and cultural features.