Are U.S. Employees Overworked or Not?

overworkA recent Atlantic article titled The Myth That Americans Are Busier Than Ever claims all the hype about how hard employees are working in the country is just that, hype.

As a country, we’re working less than we did in the 1960s and 1980s and considerably less than we did in the agrarian-industrial economy when [economist John Maynard] Keynes foresaw a future of leisure. 

The article pokes holes at a recent New Yorker essay titled,  “No Time,” the popular book by Brigid Schulte titled  Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time and the general drumbeat that’s getting louder lately about how overworked we all are.

Even in America, which looks like an industrious outlier compared to Europe, we work less, both at the office and at home. Between 1965 and 2011, time spent on housework and childcare for women declined by 35 percent (or 15 hours each week), thanks to dishwashers, TVs, and other appliances that assist the work of stay-at-home parents.

Is the Atlantic author onto something?

“All of these articles (like the one I just read on work being less stressful than home) leave out what our work and family (or leisure) lives are like,” maintains Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. “All work, all family, all leisure lives aren’t created equally!”

Realizing that not all individuals are created equal is one positive about the Atlantic article, according to the Institute’s director of research Ken Matos.

“I love that he breaks it down by demographic groups and shows that the wealthy and well-educated, the people who both write and read publications like the Atlantic, are the ones complaining about overwork,” he points out.

Matos offers some other factors to consider:

  1. Leisure needs to be defined as time that you can actually do the things you want. An un(der)employed person may have more non-work time but might spend it sitting in the house doing nothing because any other activity would cost money he/she doesn’t have. I wouldn’t equate that forced downtime with a wealthy person’s leisure time.
  2. The work of more educated and generally more highly compensated people tends to involve more decision making when there may not be clear answers and multiple, competing stakeholders. They are less likely to have rigid manuals restricting their behavior. While such restrictions are emotionally negative in other ways they do tend to resolve issues of ambiguity in what to do. This ambiguity in how to use time effectively and what work behaviors will lead to rewards breeds anxiety and ultimately feelings of being overwhelmed. In addition, not being able to have strong boundaries between work and home means that there is no moment when work can’t intrude on other parts of life, reducing the emotionally regenerative power of “off hours.”
  3. Multi-tasking is the bane of modern existence. A constant stream of information and connectivity means that people are constantly switching tasks and focus. Even if they are doing the same number of things as in the past, lots of research has shown that multi-tasking is more intellectually draining than single tasking. The old bounded systems have many flaws but they did at least set you free from a certain amount of multi-tasking induced stress (e.g., no cell-phones meant that you really were unreachable on your commute home so you could just be in that moment and everyone had to accept the reality that some things just had to wait).
  4. The flaw with Keynes’ idea of more leisure time is the assumption that people would have fine control over their work hours and can adjust their hours to match the income they want/need. Jobs come with pre-set expectations of how much you will work and people don’t often get the opportunity to say “I have earned to stop working for the day.” A hollow economy where you can be in a high leisure/low income or a high income/low leisure job probably also contributes to the feeling of overwhelm as there are fewer jobs in the middle zone of decent pay and decent hours and people are stressed about staying in the high income zone, especially in light of number 1.

If employers are any indication of how overworked and stressed out employees feel, a growing number of them are putting in programs to help workers they believe are feeling the pressure.

Every year, the Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) gives out the When Work Works award to employers that embody the six components of effective and flexible work, and among this year’s winners are many organizations finding ways to deal with overwork. (The following has been excerpted from the 2014 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work’s introduction written by Galinsky and Henry G. (Hank) Jackson, president and CEO of SHRM.)

Managing Employees’ Workload:

  • Providing additional staffing for workload peaks 

During busy season, at Frost, Ruttenberg & Rothblatt, a CPA and advisory firm, managers hire a number of interns from local colleges and universities on a full-time or part-time basis for the firm’s tax and healthcare consulting practices. Each team of administrative assistants is responsible for coordinating coverage for the individuals they support. This approach gives the team responsibility for planning time off, notifying those they support and making certain that all workloads are covered.

  • Implementing cross training

At NPC Research, a human services research firm, staff receive training in specific areas so that if one staff person is unavailable, another staff person can more easily fill in and they are allowed to increase/decrease their full-time schedule in order to either respond to the intensity of their work schedule or deal with anticipated time off.

  • Using a team approach

Leaders at Recruit Training Command, a Naval boot camp, believe teamwork is the most important characteristic to developing a supportive and flexible work environment. When the employees work well as a team, the workload is more easily shared.

  • Improving work design

Employees at the American Society of Addiction Medicine recently got a work-design revamp following problems with a more informal system. Now, teams work more cohesively and employees better understands their roles and responsibilities. To combat feelings of overwork, leaders at ASAM have awarded administrative days off directly after completing major projects, have increased the use of interns and temporary help to handle less strategic work, and have shifted workloads and priorities to provide additional staff to specific projects when needed.

  • Providing uninterrupted time during work time

A more efficient work environment is the goal of management at Ontraport, a software and business services firm. Everyone goes e-mail and chat “silent” for three hours each day to provide uninterrupted work time for “passion projects.”

  • Creating a culture of where “no” is respected

To combat overwork at the management level, the CEO of First Alliance Credit Union directed managers to say “no” when their workloads were too full to take on extra tasks. Hearing it directly from the CEO has made everyone less stressed.

Monitoring Employees’ Workload:

  • Monitoring and helping employees who have heavy workloads

The goal at Public Policy Associates, a consulting firm, is to create a workplace where everyone can work together to address business needs while having a fulfilling life outside of the office. To avoid overwork, leaders review staff members’ hours each month to address uneven workload spread.

ithinc Technology Solutions helps overworked employees work with managers to reduce their workload and find ways other team members can help support them. 

  • Helping employees prioritize tasks

Eagle County Government employees are encouraged to have open lines of communication with their managers so they can find the best ways to work for everyone. To help employee deal with reductions in staff causing increased feelings of overwork, the organization provides productivity training to help them prioritize tasks.

Encouraging Real Time Off:

  • Creating e-mail off protocols during non-work times

At the real estate firm, The Habitat Company, no employee is required to respond to e-mails outside of his or her work schedule. 

Technology has allowed CPA firm Mahoney Ulbrich Christiansen Russ to offer flexibility options to employees but the firm leaders realize how work can infringe on family/personal time. So employees are encouraged to use “out of office” responders and to set boundaries around work and personal hours, and managers try to avoid sending e-mails at night and on weekends to prevent the impression that a response is expected.

  • Encouraging vacations

Ryan, a tax services firm has implemented a comprehensive flexibility plan called “myRyan.” They conducted a research study on manager concerns about flexibility and created a Culture Council to review feedback and make recommendations on flexibility program changes. As a result of this feedback, company leadership recently began requiring exempt employees to take at least 10 days off each year.

  • Discouraging interruptions during leaves and vacations

The leaders at Colorado Springs School District 11 look at their employees holistically, understanding that they can’t be productive on the job if they’re burned out and stressed out. The District has generous leave and flexible work policies, but leadership realizes the work-life lines can blur so they’ve taken steps to create a supportive workplace. No e-mail or any work technology access is allowed for employees who are on leave.

The When Work Works winners give evidence that this elephant in the room is not only becoming visible, leading employers are beginning to take on the challenge of dealing with overwork directly in some inventive ways.

That’s a lot of work if indeed employees aren’t overworked.

This entry was posted in . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

  • 25 Years of FWI History

    Watch this compelling video about how Families and Work Institute gave voice and research to a movement.

  • Work-Life Book Reviews

    Families and Work Institute launches Work-Life Book Reviews.

    fwi-book-reviews-graphicWe review the hot work-life books, both blog and video reviews, because you don’t have time to read everything.



    When Work Works

    www-award-logo-16-winThe most of effective employers in the United States provide everything from compressed workweeks to employee autonomy to paid time off to volunteers. Check out the best employers in your state here.