All work and no play

Recent shifts in the business climate are sapping security, benefits, and pay from white-collar jobs

Feeling overworked and underpaid these days - really overworked?

You'll find company in Jill Fraser's book "White-Collar Sweatshop," which claims the reengineered workplace has taken a terrible toll on white-collar workers.

While stock prices and corporate earnings have soared, Fraser argues that Americans are working longer and harder - all for less money and fewer benefits. Factor in that workers seem expendable at any turn, and the result, she argues, is a highly stressed, insecure work force.

The book is a culmination of four years of research and more than 100 interviews with workers at such giant corporations as AT&T and IBM. It's chock-full of statistics as well as stories from the overworked.

For example, Fraser describes one Intel senior manager who worked 16-hour days. His wife started sleeping in a separate bedroom for fear that she might wake him in the rare moments he got to sleep.

Another woman, a manager at a large financial services firm, told Fraser how "she had been so overloaded and understaffed that she had been forced to work through the entire night before her wedding."

One estimate put the annual cost to the US economy of work-related stress at $200 billion a year, according to "Sweatshop."

Fraser, the finance editor of Inc. Magazine, traces how corporate America's treatment of employees has evolved into these "sweatshop" conditions. She places much of the blame on the 1980s and the advent of "slash and burn management," in which companies cut layer upon layer of management.

According to one source Fraser quotes, the Fortune 500 employment rolls dropped from 16 million in 1980 to 12 million by 1990.

At the same time, Wall Street was busy orchestrating hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts, and corporate breakups, in an effort to wring "huge, quick profits from undervalued stocks."

"White-collar working conditions deteriorated because of these maneuvers," Fraser writes. "Huge rounds of cost-cutting, layoffs, and benefit reductions occurred as 'target' companies struggled to handle the huge debt loads necessary to fight off raiders."

White-collar workers suddenly found themselves working longer and harder, under increasingly insecure conditions, Fraser notes.

Why didn't they rebel? Most, she says, were still working under the old corporate credo that rewarded loyalty and hard work.

By the time workers "began to experience a different set of emotions, that might have motivated and equipped them to resist tougher working conditions," Fraser writes, "corporate America itself had evolved in ways that seemed permanent and inflexible."

Despite a booming economy and record-low unemployment, worker insecurity is higher than ever, Fraser argues, as the stock market continues to reward companies for layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.

According to one management consultant Fraser quotes: "The workplace is never free of fear - and it shouldn't be. Indeed fear can be a powerful management tool."

Yet, while Fraser's case is well-documented, she is careful never to place any blame on workers themselves.

Many people, for example, choose the longer hours and constant pressure, in part, because they must support increasingly expensive lifestyles. "You get trapped by big houses, big cars, the lifestyle, the nice vacation," concedes one senior Intel manager whom Fraser quotes.

Two-income households have also added to a feeling of over-work.

In addition, studies have shown that people today feel busier because they have more activities and entertainment options to occupy their "free time."

While "Sweatshop" is short on solutions, it documents an ever-increasing pattern of how, for more and more, work has become inescapable. And it just might inspire a few more workers to take a stand and leave the office at 5 o'clock.

Shelley Donald Coolidge is taking it easy in Los Angeles. She occasionally writes workplace stories for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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