Making the Case For Less Time on the Job

Increased productivity and balance in workers' lives are benefits of shorter work weeks, say supporters

For 18 months Sarah, a professional woman in her 30s, worked as a researcher for a high-tech company in Cambridge, Mass. She put in 10-hour days, from 9 to 7. She seldom took a lunch hour. She even spent an hour most Sunday evenings reading e-mail at home at her boss's request.

Last November, weary of her one-dimensional life, Sarah quit. "I was expected in that environment to live to work, as opposed to work to live," she explains. "I want to live a full life - to have time for friends, time to cook a meal, and ride my bike."

Slowly and quietly, that sentiment is beginning to echo across the country as individuals and groups challenge not only 50- and 60-hour weeks like Sarah's, but the 40-hour week as well. In local forums, national conferences, and books, supporters argue that long hours hurt employees, families, and even productivity. Shorter hours, they say, offer two benefits: restoring balance to workers' lives, and distributing work more evenly between those who are overworked and those who are unemployed or underemployed.

"We live in a workaholic culture," says Barbara Brandt, a staff member of the Shorter Work-Time Group in Cambridge. She sees "this plague of overwork" as a social, economic, and political problem. She calls it a major cause of other problems, such as "young people hanging out unsupervised ... or communities breaking down because people are not there." And she terms it a health issue when it leads to fatigue and accidents.

Despite periodic flurries of public interest, most recently after the publication five years ago of Juliet Schor's "The Overworked American," there has been little significant movement toward shorter hours. Management often maintains that such flexibility, while beneficial to employees, can be detrimental to team efforts and productivity. It can also create scheduling and staffing problems.

"It goes against the trend in corporate America right now," says Elizabeth Hirschhorn Wilson of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College Carroll School of Management. "In the current thinking of downsizing and the need to increase productivity, the push is on to have longer days and more hours."

Although part-time and contingent workers now make up an estimated 30 percent of the work force, work weeks of 49 hours or more have become increasingly prevalent. In 1996, 19 percent of the labor force, or 24 million workers, logged 49 hours or more weekly. That is up from 15 percent, or 14 million workers, in 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Factory overtime stands at near-record highs, averaging 4.6 hours a week in January 1997, up from 3.5 hours a week in January 1986.

Kenneth McLennan, president of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation in Arlington, Va., defends overtime, saying that managers would "rather use skilled workers a few more hours than go out and hire people who might not be as skilled."

Proposals for shorter work time include everything from ending mandatory overtime to providing more vacation days, better family leave, and more flexibility, such as job sharing. The most radical change would reduce the 40-hour week to 30 or 32 hours. "If you had a six-hour day, you'd have another hour at home in the morning and another hour at night," says former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a long-time advocate. "That is much more significant than family leave without pay."

The fledgling movement is forging alliances among women's groups, economists, politicians, and even religious leaders. Ruy Costa of the Massachusetts Council of Churches says, "The bottom line for communities of faith is not how fast the gross national product is growing, but what is the quality of the life we live."

Betty Friedan calls shorter work hours "the next major goal of the women's movement, hopefully with the alliance of the labor movement." When she mentions it in talks, she gets "great applause."

When the Shorter Work-Time Group convened a forum in January, people of all ages, races, and occupations - white collar, blue collar, high tech - attended, including Sarah. "Everybody wanted to talk about how they were trying to squeeze 30 hours of a life into 24 hours of a day," says Ed Kelly of Jobs With Justice in Cambridge, the moderator.

Yet Christy Karr, president of the American Association of Industrial Management in Springfield, Mass., finds complaints about overworked Americans "very distressing." He says, "Eight hours of work in a given day is not overworking anybody, assuming that they have normal health capacity."

Inevitably, the issue of reduced hours raises concerns about smaller paychecks. A study by Bozell International finds that 51 percent of Americans would prefer more free time, even if it meant less money. But Mr. Kelly notes that many people need every dollar they earn. He says, "We don't necessarily think we need to reduce pay when people work less, because companies would get greater productivity."

The most obvious beneficiaries of shorter work time are parents. But framing the problem as a family need excludes millions of workers like Sarah, who simply want more balance. "Every human being needs enough time for themselves, whether or not they have a family to take care of," Ms. Brandt says.

High-tech firms represent some of the worst offenders, says Larry Gaffin, director of the Center for Life Decisions in Seattle. "People say they work 70 to 80 hours a week, but I'm sure they're not being productive 80 hours."

Sarah, who does not want her real name used because she is still interviewing for jobs, agrees. "The hour you spend working between 6 and 7 p.m. is not the same hour you spend between 10 and 11 a.m. You're zonked."

For now, activists see hopeful signs. Last March Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian, organized an international conference at the University of Iowa, dealing with the problem of rising work hours and lack of time. On April 26, Brandt's group will hold a similar conference at Boston College.

Professor Hunnicutt believes change is still far away. Even so, he does note "some cracks in the surface." Short hours figured in French parliamentary elections in 1993, he says. And in Germany, automaker BMW has adopted a four-day week.

Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The End of Work" (Putnam), also finds interest in shorter work weeks spreading to Spain, Finland, and Mexico.

For Americans, Kelly says, the first step will be to get people to share experiences and ideas, elevating the subject to a national political and social issue. Gaffin finds that clients who are willing to speak privately about fatigue and dissatisfaction are often still "too scared" of losing their jobs to attend his workshops on shorter work time.

Avoiding a one-size-fits-all solution, Kelly suggests that within one company, some people could work 40 hours, others 30. Some might choose sabbaticals. Older workers could use shorter hours as a bridge to retirement.

McCarthy sees a role for unions or a third-party movement. Mr. Rifkin wants government to provide significant tax credits and incentives. He also suggests a formula of "6 and 6 by 2006," allowing parents to work six hours a day to match the six-hour school day.

Hunnicutt offers a different view. "Until we change the way we think about work and material goods ... relative to leisure, I see no way to look forward to shorter hours. A turning of values, not legislation, is ultimately what will get us to shorter hours."

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