FOR several months, the unemployment rate in the United States has hovered at 7 percent. Job creation is lagging its historic average for this stage of a recovery. One key reason: corporate reliance on overtime. This is typical coming out of a recession. Uncertain about the course of the recovery, employers meet increased orders with overtime until the economy looks firm enough to merit hiring more employees.
This time, however, the sluggish nature of the recovery and the high costs of employee benefits are prompting many employers to stretch out the use of overtime. In April, average overtime for factory workers reached 4.3 hours a week, the highest level since the federal government began tracking overtime in 1948.
While this clearly works to the disadvantage of the unemployed, it also has an underappreciated impact on those still on the job. Workers initially welcome the increased income that overtime brings. But the longer overtime runs, the more counterproductive it becomes: morale and efficiency drop. One Gillette Company executive noted recently that his firm finally hired part-timers to cover weekend shifts that had been covered by overtime. The reason: increasing levels of stress among workers. Referring to the overtime levels, he noted, "You cannot do that indefinitely."
It isn't hard to see why. Just as many companies tend to defer maintenance when they lose money, it is tempting to defer what might be called personal maintenance when one feels a loss of time. This manifests itself in many ways: deferred or slighted maintenance of a role in church or community activities, of relations with family and friends, or even of a responsible eating and exercise schedule.
In these uncertain times, it is crucial to respect and defend personal maintenance time - and make the best use of it. If the squeeze helps people refocus from the merely urgent or amusingly frivolous to the truly important, our personal, family, community, and corporate lives will only benefit. The danger lies in a squeeze that cuts into the truly important.