Cultural Attitudes About Work May Not Be What You Expect - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #873

Cultural Attitudes About Work May Not Be What You Expect

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Photo by Pixabay
Photo by Pixabay


National values regarding the importance of work may not align with stereotypes or assumptions, according to responses to a selection of work attitude-related questions from the World Values Survey.


Conducted in waves every five years since 1981, the World Values Survey (WVS) is a global research study exploring values and attitudes in 120 countries (covering nearly 95% of the world’s population). Using a select group of survey questions from the WVS and its European counterpart, the European Values Survey (EVS), Kings College professor Bobby Duffy and his WVS team at the university’s Policy Institute craft an illuminating study that explores the different work attitudes of 24 countries.

One of the most notable results of this deep dive into work attitudes is the position of the UK as one of the most skeptical countries (relatively) about prioritizing work over family or leisure time.

For example, when asked whether work was very or rather important in their lives, 73% of UK responders said yes. Although representing nearly three-quarters of respondents, the figure is low compared to other European countries such as France (94%), Italy (96%) and Spain (96%). The UK’s response rate was the lowest of the 24 countries included in the report. The top-ranked countries were the Philippines and Indonesia, where 99% of respondents said work was very or rather important to them. These results offer a first glimpse into the assumption-questioning results of the report. The prevalence of strikes and a large number of paid vacations in France does not translate into less respect for work: 15% more French than Americans (the only advanced nation where paid vacations are not mandatory) emphasize the importance of work in their lives.

In answer to the question of whether work should always come first, even if it means less spare time, the UK still led in terms of deemphasizing the importance of work compared to its European counterparts. Only three countries Australia, Canada, and Japan were less likely to say that work should always come first. The U.S. response might surprise some: only 28% of Americans believe that work should always come first, compared to 39% of French respondents, 45% of Spanish respondents, and 66% of Mexican respondents.

Other questions in the report included:

Would it be a good thing or a bad thing if less importance was placed on work?

About 40 to 45% of respondents in Western countries such as Spain, Germany, the UK, and France believed that would be a good thing if work if less importance was placed on work in the future. About 29% of Americans agreed. An astounding 88% of the Egyptians believed it would be a bad thing.

Do you believe work is a duty to society?

Western nations were split on this question, with about 60% of responses from the UK, Australia, Spain, and the US agreeing with this statement, compared to much higher percentages in countries such as Norway, Germany, and Sweden, where 86%, 74%, and 71% respectively were likely to consider work a duty to society.

How important is leisure time in your life?

While Sweden and Norway led the field with 96% of respondents saying leisure time was important, the UK continued its work-skeptic trend with 93% of respondents agreeing with the importance of leisure time, ranking 5th out of 24 countries. In general, most countries placed high importance on leisure time except Egypt and the Philippines, where 55% and 61% respectively believed leisure time was important.

Do you believe people who don’t work turn lazy?

In answer to this provocative question, nearly 89% of Egyptians and 87% of Nigerians said yes. Except for the Swedes, where only 32% of respondents agreed with this statement, respondents in the UK support people who don’t work (only 40% agreed that people who don’t work turn lazy). The final work attitudes question highlighted by Duffy does hard work bring a better life? revealed the gap in attitudes between the United States and other Western countries. For 55% of Americans, hard work brings a better life, while about a third believed both work and luck were equally important to success. In comparison, only 39% of UK respondents and 28% of German respondents believed hard work usually brings a better life. About half of the respondents from the two countries believed a combination of work and luck was more likely to lead to success.


This report reveals interesting disparities and parallels in attitudes among nations and can help cross-cultural managers recognize differences and similarities among cultures. Old stereotypes, for example about a more relaxed, leisurely approach to work in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain, have proven obsolete. The people of the UK, on the other hand, seem to be the most skeptical about prioritizing work, compared to other countries, with Americans not far behind.

This report also highlights the importance of taking advantage of the information age for leaders about to embark on a cross-cultural assignment. Questionable assumptions about other countries can be tenacious but are unacceptable for any leader given the easy access to a wide range of cross-cultural information on the web. The World Values Survey links below are one place to start.



The World Values Survey website

World Values Survey Wave 7


(September 2023).

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Idea conceived

January 3, 2024

Idea posted

Feb 2024
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