The ascent of hours on the job

Americans increasingly feel overwhelmed by their workload. A shift in priorities might help.

When Tammy Whaley and her friends socialize, one topic of conversation comes up again and again: work - in particular, overwork. They like their jobs but often feel overwhelmed by the daily demands they face.

"Everybody is racing against the clock, trying to get as much accomplished and as many items checked off their to-do list in a given workday," says Ms. Whaley, communications director for the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg. "We talk about how we can do more in less time."

It's a challenge facing growing ranks of workers as they log long hours and shoulder more responsibilities. One in 3 employees say they are chronically overworked, according to a 2005 study by the Families and Work Institute in New York. More than half of those surveyed said they had felt overwhelmed by their workload in the previous month. More than a third were not planning to take their full vacations.

Workplace experts offer several reasons for the overload. Layoffs and budget cuts have left many firms understaffed. A global economy, stretching across time zones, makes 9-to-5 workdays obsolete in some fields. Even technology, meant to be the great liberator, steps up the demands on workers.

"The workplace moves at such a fast pace," Whaley says. "With e-mail, voice mail, faxes, and pagers, you are expected to respond to everyone immediately."

In a January study by Steelcase, half of white-collar workers say they log more than 40 hours a week. Three-quarters of those in this group do some work on weekends because of an increased workload. Forty-two percent are working more hours now than five years ago.

"This problem has nothing to do with good or bad bosses," says Jack Cage, an executive search consultant in New York. "The issue boils down to revenue and cost. Nearly all companies are trying to get more done, and more revenue, with less cost." That means fewer employees.

In some companies, one or two people now handle the work that in many cases five handled previously, says Joyce Gioia, a workforce futurist and president of the Herman Group in Greensboro, N.C.

Corporate employees aren't the only ones feeling the strain of overwork. For the growing ranks of the self-employed - consultants, freelancers, independent contractors - the taskmaster who chains them to the desk for long hours is the face staring back at them in the mirror.

"I have the world's most demanding and critical boss - me," says Gail Bradney, a freelance business writer and editor in Woodstock, N.Y. "I sit at my desk nearly 10 hours a day, including evenings and weekends." With no paid vacation or benefits, she rarely takes time off and seldom turns down projects. "It's the hungry freelancer syndrome," she says. "You're just not sure where the next job is going to come from, so you always say yes. When you're working for yourself, you always have time and you always don't have time. You use all your time."

As an antidote, she sometimes goes on a "technology fast," as she calls it. "When I feel really depleted because I've been overworking, I just turn off all machines. No telephone, no fax, no e-mail, no TV, no radio. It's very energizing. Just 30 minutes of reading, walking, or doing nothing helps."

Even that isn't the ultimate solution. "I need to fire my boss," Ms. Bradney says with self-deprecating humor. "My new ideal boss would put me on a four-day workweek, with mandatory weekends and a two-week vacation once a year. No working past 8 o'clock at night. I need to figure out some way to get some quality back into my life. It can't all be about working."

In many countries, it isn't. Jim Goyjer, a native of the Netherlands who lives in Los Angeles, sees profound differences between Europeans and Americans in their attitudes toward work.

People in the United States define themselves by their work, says Mr. Goyjer, who is self-employed. "Europeans define themselves by hobbies and other things. Work is just a means."

At parties in the US, he says, the first question is, "What do you do?" In the Netherlands, the opening question is, "Where have you been on vacation?" or "Where are you going on vacation?"

Noting that the American emphasis on work contributes to overwork, Goyjer says, "That's all they think about, it's all they hear, all they're taught. It's their whole environment."

Just ask Whaley. "It's almost trendy to sit around and talk about how overwhelmed you are," she says. "If you don't have a job where you're completely overwhelmed or you're under all kinds of time constraints, it's almost like what you do isn't taken as seriously."

The amount of vacation time Americans receive also plays a role, Goyjer observes. For Europeans, four weeks off is standard.

Even Americans who receive generous vacation time often don't use it all. Thirty-seven percent of those responding to the Families and Work Institute study take fewer than seven days. Only 14 percent take vacations of two weeks or more.

Whaley seldom uses more than two or three days of vacation at a time. "It is just not worth the consequences," she says. Before a vacation, she must work longer hours to get everything done, and then do the same to catch up when she returns.

Yet feeling stretched thin is not simply a matter of how many hours people work. Working conditions play a part as well. Multitasking, often a demand in short-staffed firms, can contribute to feeling overworked, the study finds. So can being interrupted frequently during work time as well as working evenings, weekends, and even on vacation.

Employees' own priorities also affect their feelings of overload. Those who are "work-centric" are more likely to be overworked than those who give equal priority to their lives on and off the job, the study says. In one surprising finding, employees with greater family responsibilities were no more likely to feel overworked than those without these responsibilities. The exception involved workers providing elder care.

Despite the pressure Whaley feels, she gives her employer high marks for flexibility. "They're very good to employees," she says. "If I need to leave at lunch or do personal things, I can do that."

For Whaley and her friends, humor provides one escape valve. "We joke, 'My next job is going to be putting labels on envelopes, or being the greeter at WalMart,'" she says. "But I wonder how fulfilled we would be if we went to those jobs."

Goyjer is convinced that at least a partial solution to overwork will come as Americans redefine success. "When people in this country look at success, the first thing they think of is success in business. That's not success in the true aspect of life, defined by your family, hobbies, and other interests."

The American workplace is at a pivotal point, says Richard Mason, a professor of business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In recent years, he says, companies have won productivity gains at the expense of workers' health and happiness. As the author of a study, "Virtuous Organizations: The Value of Happiness in the Work Place," he finds that "supporting the humanity of employees returns much more than the widespread focus of incremental productivity gains."

As evidence, Ms. Gioia points to companies on the Fortune 100 list and the Working Mother list of the best companies to work for. "Their stock performance over the years has been something like 15 percent better than the aggregate of the companies on the New York Stock Exchange," she says. "The lesson is, 'Take care of your people and your profits will be better in the long run.' "

Exhorting employers to "wake up," Gioia adds, "They have to get it that if they don't take care of their employees, they're going to leave, because they have choices. Rapidly we're moving back to a time when employees are in the driver's seat. They won't have to work as many hours, and they won't have to burn themselves out."

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