Lights out for long hours?

Just as a rethinking of America's 'overwork ethic' broadens, a rising tide of layoffs may have more workers worried about looking busy

As far as Tom McMakin is concerned, even one extra hour worked beyond a 40-hour workweek means employees - and the quality of their labor - begin to wilt.

Mr. McMakin, the former chief operating officer of the Great Harvest Bread Co., was largely responsible for ushering in a period of significant growth for the company in the 1990s.

Today, with 138 franchises in 35 states, Great Harvest is the nation's leading fresh-bread store chain.

But McMakin didn't achieve that success by putting in long days at the office. And neither did his employees.

"We've lost in our culture this sense that business and work in general should be in service to our lives," explains McMakin, who is now looking into buying another firm. "You can't balance 70-hour workweeks with a good home life."

Indeed, America's hard-working habits - and its drive for technological innovation and economic achievement - seem to have spawned a host of side effects. Workplace activists blame long work hours for weakening family ties while increasing the likelihood of work-related accidents, job burnout, and employee resentment.

A study released in May by the New York-based Families and Work Institute found that more than half of employees surveyed felt overworked at least some of the time in the previous three months. Of employees who admitted to experiencing high levels of overwork, 43 percent said they often felt angry toward their employers.

Today, more than 25 million Americans work more than 49 hours each week. Of that number, 11 million spend 60 hours or more at work each week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The sheer number of hours put in by Americans has already earned the US the dubious distinction of being the most overworked nation in the industrialized world.

"I don't think [Americans] know how bad it's gotten because it's happened gradually, and gotten to be the norm," says Joe Robinson, who founded the Los Angeles-based Work to Live campaign, a nationwide, grass-roots movement that is calling on Congress to amend the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act so that every American who works at a job for at least a year would get three weeks of paid leave.

"We really have turned the concept of the work ethic into an overwork ethic," Mr. Robinson adds. "The fact is that many of us don't have another identity other than our job title.... We're defining ourselves through our labor, and it's only gotten more extreme."

The current economic recession and rising unemployment have not helped the situation, say workplace experts. "Downsizing has created more work for people who haven't been laid off, and many people are doing what's being called defensive overworking to try to save their jobs. We've taken our work ethic to the point where people are working around the clock and cannot stop," says Robinson.

But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, adds Robinson, have led many American workers to reprioritize the place work has in their lives. "I think, more than ever, people are open to this message that there's something more to life than work."

"In the 9/11 era, there's more introspection taking place," says Nancy Snow, an adjunct associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and associate director of the Center for Communications and Community at UCLA. "We're reexamining ourselves as a people, and a nation, and even reassessing where we should be going with our careers."

The idea that Americans are working themselves too hard - and for all the wrong reasons - has particularly resonated among workers between the ages of 16 and 25 - members of so-called 'Generation Y,' explains Snow.

"Young people are generally not as driven to overwork," she says. "Many of them are choosing to travel, and work less. There's the sense that they're not as defined by what they do for a living ... and they're getting their sense of belonging and identity from their social networks, not from their workplaces."

Younger workers seem most insistent about their need for extra vacation time.

A survey conducted this year by Hilton Hotels Corp. found that three-fourths of Generation Y and X workers said that they were in need of a long vacation. Generation Y workers, the survey revealed, were only earning about 10 vacation days per year.

The Free Time/Free People campaign, launched last year by Rabbi Arthur Waskow's Shalom Center, has taken more of a spiritual approach in its call for more time off.

The campaign, which calls for an end to American overwork, also stresses the need for more free time for volunteer work, community involvement, and self-reflective spiritual growth. Plans are under way for a national, interreligious conference for 2002, likely to be held in Boston.

The Free Time/Free People campaign has been primarily inspired by the concept of Sabbath rest - the one day a week when all work-related activity should come to a halt. "This continues to speak to all human beings," says Rabbi Waskow. "The basic sense of Shabbat is the life rhythm of work and rest.... Working and doing are not the only important things in the world."

A brief history of long hours on the job

The push to log long hours on the job is not new. Neither is resistance to the trend.

The fight for shorter working hours in the US began in the 1840s. In increments, workers got their hours reduced to nine per day with Sundays off, and then - with the rise of the American labor movement in the 1920s and '30s - to eight hours. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, American workers were also guaranteed overtime pay for hours worked above 40 per week. Soon, many workers were also taking Saturday off.

Opportunities for relaxation were a major component of American life until the decades following World War II, says Nancy Snow, associate director of the Center for Communications and Community at the University of California Los Angeles.

In tandem with the nation's competitive drive to build a world-leading economy, industrial unions began to see gradually waning influence. Membership, which hit a high of 35 percent of all nonfarm workers in the late 1940s, began to decline.

And America's work/life balance began to shift radically.

The race to "keep up with the Joneses" in the 1950s placed greater emphasis on the family breadwinner to work more hours in order to obtain more things.

Household appliances, electronics, and later, computers, were supposed to simplify our lives from the 1950s onward, but had the end result of cluttering our days with more activities and more gadgets to fix.

Then the length of work commutes grew throughout the 1960s and '70s as many families fled metropolitan centers for the relative safety of suburban communities.

In the late '70s, rising costs of living made it increasingly difficult for single-income families to live out the fabled American dream. Two-income families soon became more the norm.

The over-40-hour workweek truly became a facet of the American work life in the 1980s, writes Jill Fraser in her new book "White Collar Sweatshop" (Norton). During and after the recession of 1981-82, employees invested an increasing amount of time at the job amid large-scale layoffs.

Consumption also soared during much of the rest of the 1980s.

To make matters worse, says Ms. Snow, American society now associates time off with a lack of productivity.

"[It's] the perception that people [not at work] are just lollygagging around. When you're away from your job, you're seen as a drain on the economy," she says.

In contrast, the citizens and governments of European nations are still busy asserting their need for a work/life balance. Many are renowned for more generous vacation policies than those of the United States.

France is now adjusting to a nationally mandated 35-hour workweek. The unemployment rate has been dropping there. Meanwhile, Ireland is enjoying one of the world's highest rates of labor productivity despite a significant drop in the number of hours worked nationwide.

The key lesson to be learned from European nations might be that some payoff exists for giving employees more opportunities to rejuvenate themselves.

"We want to be fully present and alive in our work lives, and so it's important for us to have full, outside lives ... lives that fill us with energy and allow ourselves to bring our best to our work on any given day," says Tom McMakin, former chief operating officer of Great Harvest Bread Co., and author of "Bread and Butter: What a Bunch of Bakers Taught me About Business and Happiness."

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