Are We Addicted to Work?

The scene – the window from my midtown Manhattan hotel facing an office building.
The time – 6 am –  the usual time I wake up when working in New York City (unless I can help it!)   

 More than a decade ago, when I started staying at this hotel, the offices were mostly dark at 6 am.   But in recent years, more lights in more windows are on at that time – workers already busy at their desks. 
What time did they start, I wonder? Have they been there since 5 am?

If you know NYC and its environs, you know that to be in your midtown office by 6 am, you would have to leave your home by 4:30 am or earlier, unless you live nearby.  So if you live say, in Long Island,  and caught the 4:45 am train into Manhattan – what time did you get up – I wonder?   4 am?

So if you got up at 4 – what time did you go to bed last night?

If you went to sleep at 10 – you only got 6 hours.  And by the way, what time did you get home yesterday evening?  Maybe 7 PM – if you were “lucky.”  

That means you had about 3 hours of “personal” time in your day.  Or maybe not?  Maybe you checked your emails or prepared for work today in your precious three-hour time slot, I wonder…

Where then does work begin and where does it end?

What is “personal” life and where does it begin and end?  An important question – given that most work life still labors under the illusory belief that we should “leave our personal lives at home.”  

How Long Are WE Working?

American workers work longer work weeks and more annual hours than counterparts in many advanced economies. Americans work nine full weeks (350 hours) longer than Western Europeans do, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).  On an annual basis, the ILO says, Americans spend about 1,800 hours a year at work, compared to 1,600 hours or fewer in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. 

 In fact, 134 countries have laws that set limits on the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that does not.  Among advanced economies, the United States is the only one that does not require employers to provide a minimum number of paid vacation days.  While most U.S. businesses typically provide five to 10 days in vacation for new employees and an average of eight paid holidays, government data indicates it takes about 10 years with the same employer to earn three weeks of vacation.  In contrast, workers in the European Union can count on a minimum of 20 days of paid leave every year, and most get substantially more than that.  When paid leave and paid holidays are combined, workers in many EU countries enjoy a minimum of 30 or more paid days off every year.  They often get more.   Data from the World Tourism Organization shows that the average vacation time for Italians is 42 days a year, 37 in France and 35 in Germany.

Do We Really Want “Time-Off”?

Did you know that more than 25% of Americans don’t use all of their vacation time?  And 20% (this seems very low based on our anecdotal information) do some work even while they are on vacation, according to the Families and Work Institute.
According to John de Graff, co-author of Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America,. “Americans feel enormous pressure to work so they won’t be seen as slackers.”

Why Do Americans Work So Much Harder?  

The debate on work-life issues today is even more polarized than just a decade ago.  Little progress has been made to advance the discussion, but the hours Americans work continues to increase.
Noticeably, discussions on work-life balance have also decreased in the post-recession climate.  Understandably, given the serious declines and structural changes in the job market, the focus has shifted and many people are willing (some reluctantly) to work even harder to stay employed.

While these forces may shape the employment landscape for now, the important questions about the future of work-life balance will not go away.  Working longer and harder is not a sustainable strategy.   Statistics on depression, stress-related diseases and anxiety disorders are dramatically increasing.  Generational dynamics will also continue to play a major role in defining the way we work in the future.  While the direction of Millennial work trends aren’t yet clear, surveys show that this generation has a different set of priorities than their Boomer and early Gen X parents.

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” wrote William Butler Yeats in his chilling 1919 poem, The Second Coming.   Many Americans are on a collision course with their work. Is the continued growth of American “productivity” driven by greater efficiency and ingenuity – or built on the backs of sacrifices made in personal well-being?
The reasons Americans work so much harder are many:

  • Business leaders and cultures “model” long hours and brief vacations
  • A generation of declining and stagnant wages mean that people have to work longer hours just to keep pace with the cost of living
  • While lobbyists for industry and corporate interests have significantly increased in the past twenty years, advocacy for the  interests of workers continues to spiral downward
  • The Center for American Progress reports that while in 1960 only 20 percent of mothers worked, that number is now 70%  While gender parity in the workplace is a cause for celebration, many of the responsibilities of family life have added enormous burdens to single and dual parent working families. This is compounded by the lack of affordable, convenient and reliable child care options in this country
  • The U.S. is the only advanced economy without a national paid parental leave benefit. The average is over 12 weeks of paid leave in many parts of the world and over 20 weeks in Europe
  • The enduring cultural meme of the superiority of the “American work ethic,”  is often cited but  rarely factually examined and discussed
  • False cultural comparisons about “others”  pit  the success and potential of American workers against images of other workers throughout the world as “less than” us
  • The pervasive presence of technology allows many workers 24/7 access to work tasks.   But studies show that Americans use their tech work tools far more than their European counterparts to interfere with personal and home life
  • Last, not least – our beliefs and fears. Fears about being unemployed, fears about not being promoted, fears about not being valued and recognized for our work, fears about competition, fears about losing control, fears about not having enough and being enough.  Our beliefs feed our fears – personal and collective, so it’s important to understand and challenge them.  Beliefs and fears keep us tethered to old habits and behaviors, despite the external realities we face.

There is no doubt that the economic landscape and workplace dynamics are undergoing historic change.  Change has been in the making for decades – and will undoubtedly continue for years to come.   The policies that govern our work will change. The work that we do will change. How we do our work will change.  Few will avoid the necessity of change.  So rather than waiting for change to happen to us, these times can provide us with opportunities, however small, to redefine the role of work in our lives. 
As with all change, we can begin by asking ourselves some important questions:

  • Do you think we work too hard as a culture?
  • Do you work too hard?
  • What is the meaning of work in your life? Is it just a paycheck or is it more?
  • What are the most important values in your life – and where does your work fit into those values?
  • What images do you identify with that drive your work?
  • What beliefs govern the choices you make around your work life?

It’s a perfect time to examine – individually and collectively – what work means to us in America – and how it will define our future.

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Ronnie Ann says:

    Great article on a very important topic. Thank you. I strongly believe the time in between doing things – the space that generates creative ideas and different perspectives or just recharges us – can turn out to be as or more productive than actual work. Yet I know too many workplaces that make it clear that for them more is more. (It’s not.)
    Just want to add an observation that may be a little off to the side: I have friends who feel that if they haven’t accomplished something tangible each day they wasted the whole day; and for some it even triggers feelings of not being good enough. Do those of us who live in certain countries (including many who live in the United States) even know how to just enjoy doing sweet nothing? In Italy, for example, they say “dolce far niente” – sweet to do nothing. I found a lovely post on this topic if I may share: I can’t help thinking there are some deep cultural roots here that go way beyond the workplace – but of course helped shape it. (Maybe even a chicken and egg thing?)
    Food for thought. I think I’ll go have a nap. ;–)

  2. Ronnie,
    Thanks so much for these great comments! I enjoyed the post you shared very much. Being big fans of most things Italian, we’ve long loved that wonderful phrase “dolce fair niente.” Got a taste of that once on a trip to Tuscany where we stayed at the B&B “villa” of a friend (lucky us) where breakfast was served on the terrace each morning. The view was stupendous and the “host” played opera – what a gift!
    We’d notice that as travelers from the US arrived each day (esp first timers) they would have ambitous plans for seeing all the sights in nearby Siena and Florence. They’d rush through breakfast and we’d see them later in the day in some cafe or church in the city. But slowly but surely as the experience of sitting on Alfred and Rose’s terrace in a state of “dolce far niente,” they departed for their sightseeing outings later and later each day. By week’s end, Alfred had to gently remind us all that it was almost lunch time and we’d best be thinking about moving on!
    So, to your question, I will say this, the Italians and French visitors lingered the longest, the Germans and Brits next. The first to bolt each day were always the Americans. Maybe it is because they have the least “holiday” time of the group? But we think it has a great deal to do with the common American “trait” of accomplishment – problem solving – making things happen – getting it DONE. If I tick off the cathedral in Siena then that’s DONE and I can move on the the next item on my list.
    I truly believe that we still labor under the collective pressure that every day has to “result” in an accomplishment. The evidence of this “affliction” is abundant thoughout this culture.
    As an aside what is really interesting is that all the latest brain research shows the impact of rest and recreation on focus, memory and creativity. Just yesterday I read that naps have a very positive impact on memorization. While that’s valuable to know, it’s also good for us to “get” that it’s also OK just to be tired and take an agendaless nap.
    So here’s to yours,

  3. Great post on a very important topic. With the tremendous increase of stress-related illnesses these days, I’m hoping that our culture can make a change towards broadening the time we enjoy our families and our lives. Work can certainly be a part of that, but for too many work has become their sole source of identity and worthiness. That’s not good.
    It’s even more difficult in these tough economic times, when people fear the loss of their jobs and their source of earning a living. Fear has a nasty habit of really holding us back from joy and vibrancy.
    I love this quote – ‘To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is quite another.’ (some attribute the quote to Katherine Paterson and I have seen it attributed to others)
    For me, as I get a bit older, I am consciously trying to work less and allow myself to explore all the many interests I have. I admit that I often feel “guilty” and say to myself “I should be working – there is so much to do”…but now I fight that habitual thought. As a result, I am having so much fun exploring my ideas and my creative expression. I do believe I am more valuable to my clients because I have more time to let ideas float and expand.
    I really enjoyed Ronnie Ann’s comment about the phrase used in Italy, she said they say “dolce far niente” – sweet to do nothing. I will remember this, for sure. Thanks Ronnie Ann.
    Kind Regards,

    • Hi Terry,
      You make a very important point about stress related illness — have a feeling we haven’t begun to see the upswing in the numbers since the “post” recession push by so many overworked people. Have just heard about someone we work with – higher level HR person – working 12+ hours a day – hospitalized twice in the past month. We just don’t seem to get that the body will not lie. It will eventually rebel from abuse.
      You are also right about rest and creativity. All the research points in that direction – the more you push – the more elusive the ideas and problem solving.
      Loved your quote about fear. And yes, Ronnie’s term of “dolce far niente” hit the spot!
      In fact, this reminds me that I want to start planning another trip to Italy!
      Always appreciate your comments!

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