I’m sure that if you’re like me, you spend most of your day thinking about the next time that you’re going to be able to take some time off from your job. In today’s “work until you die” America, who doesn’t? Between the hours-long commutes and being chained to a desk – nevermind the fact that outside economic factors like the housing market and personal finances make our time that we aren’t at work pretty lousy to boot – us Americans are an overworked bunch. Even young people in positions that are known for their ability to withstand a tremendous workload – like medical interns – are now being found to be working too hard; so much so that they not only may be ineffective doctors at the end of their residencies, but also dangerous to the people they work on in the interim.
Thinking about all of this overworking got me recalling Paul Krugman’s op-ed “Our Sick Society,” from the May 5th Times (Krugman’s columns are rightfully TimesSelect pieces – note: it’s completely worth it – but for those of you that don’t feel like ponying up, the column can be found at the link above or by simply googling “Our Sick Society”). In his column that Saturday, Krugman was not specifically conquering the death of the eight-hour work day, but he does note near his conclusion that:
The other possibility is that Americans work too hard and experience too much stress. Full-time American workers work, on average, about 46 weeks per year; full-time British, French and German workers work only 41 weeks a year. I’ve pointed out in the past that our workaholic economy is actually more destructive of the “family values” we claim to honor than the European economies in which regulations and union power have led to shorter working hours.
Maybe overwork, together with the stress of living in an economy with a minimal social safety net, damages our health as well as our families.
Is Krugman right? One would have to agree. Looking past the flammable, polarizing issue of which European countries recieve more mandatory vacation than Americans, it’s easy to see that in America, we work too much. We check our office email at home, while we eat out, and while we travel for pleasure. We worry about presentations while we sit in transit to plays and art galleries. No one reads books anymore – instead we read our Blackberrys and notebooks. Our up-and-go has made our nation into the superpower of our age, a beacon of cultural exchange, and the richest land in the world. But as Malcolm Gladwell would surely point out, we’ve hit the Tipping Point on productivity long ago. Today, how much does checking one’s email at lunch really provide to the national economic dominance? I especially pose this question to not only those who voluntarily do so, but also those individuals who expect it – namely, bosses that overwork because they, themselves, are overworked.
To bring things full circle, I started to think about things in a different way. Is it the American mindset to take a “vacation from relaxation”? Is it because I am overworked that it takes five days for me to post in this blog? Probably not. But trying to cram in all the things we want to do with all of the things we have to do is no longer an executive problem. Even us lowly admins are beginning to sense the fringes – and I’m lucky enough to have a job where I don’t feel pressed very often.
The issue is to find the way we change the culture of acceptable working – if it is not already too late to reverse it. Does the answer lie in personal responsibility, or in big governement legislation?
While we wait and see, I think I need to check my email.
flickr user Jay Dugger needs a vacation after seeing that whiteboard.