America's Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted

Why do so many people—particularly women—seem to have so much on their plates?
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Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library/Flickr

Perhaps the most poignant detail from Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," was also one of the smallest: an overworked mother of three who "organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time."

That may be extreme, but it illustrated a familiar feeling, one the writer Brigid Schulte calls "the overwhelm." In her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte scrutinizes this state of affairs: Why do we all feel so overworked? How is that feeling different for men than for women? Is a better, less harried life possible? I spoke with Schulte about her research, and a lightly edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Can you start by telling us about what "the overwhelm" is, how you see it now after years of research and writing on the topic, and how you think that your understanding differs from the conventional one?

This whole book started when a time-use researcher told me I had 30 hours of leisure a week. And when I told him he was out of his flipping mind, he challenged me to keep a time diary and he would show  me where my leisure was.

The whole premise of his challenge was that there was something wrong with me. That I should have this time, and if I didn’t feel that I did, it was my fault. I already felt totally inadequatefelt that I never did enough work, or that it was good enough, that I wasn’t spending enough time with my kids, or that I was so exhausted I was yelling at them, and I stomped around seething that my “egalitarian” marriage left me up late folding laundry or wrapping Christmas presents or doing the dishes while my husband slept soundly.

Before I began working on this book, I thought that’s just how life had to befast, crazy, busy, breathlessparticularly for working mothers in the 21st century. I didn’t think it could change. I had no role models. And didn’t really stop and think about why. Most everyone I knew was busy, with schedules going every which way. I remember talking to another working mother on my cell phone in the car weeping after going back to work after my maternity leave about how burned out I felt and how I missed the companionship and understanding of the mother’s group I’d joined after maternity leave. “This is it,” she’d said. “This phone call is the only kind of mother’s group you’re going to get now.”

There was also no real national discussion on what I was experiencing. If women were feeling overwhelmed, I had the feeling that the culture just thought, "Tough. You made this choice to work, now deal with it." That view was always reinforced after I would write a piece for the Washington Post about juggling work and life. I would always get comments about how working mothers were just selfish. I would get into big back and forths with readers who thought working mothers just wanted big houses and were abandoning their kids. They didn’t deserve free time. Anything approaching discussion about feeling overwhelmed was dismissed as a “Mommy issues,” and [the upshot seemed to be] that middle-class women just needed to to get to the spa for an afternoon or take an anti-anxiety med and chill out.

But I discovered soon enough that these are hardly “Mommy” issuesthese are human issues, how we work and live, the pressures to spend so much time at work, or living up to crazy ideals, is affecting all of us. And you’re beginning to see the conversation changeeven conservatives now are looking at birth-rate declines and work like Stewart D. Friedman’s Baby Bust showing that more young people don’t see a way to combine work and family in a rational way, so are choosing not to have families. That’s huge. That’s when work-life issues become the problem of society, especially one that purports to value families and that wants to survive into the future.

What I discovered in researching the book has been infuriating, enlightening and ultimately liberating. It is so clear now how on the bleeding edge we are of changing gender roles, how so much has changed in our lives and yet how so much remains stuck in amber, in the nostalgia of another era. I’m not just talking about workplace laws which were written in 1938 when the world was a different place and tax policies that favor breadwinner-homemaker family models, but our cultural attitudes, our unconscious biases.

I had one of those “aha” moments when I found the General Social Survey question about whether mothers of preschoolers should work. As late as 2002, the last time the question was asked (at least at the time of my reporting) majorities of both men and women said no, she shouldn’t, or she should only work part-time. What that showed me was such a deep and pervasive ambivalence about working mothersno wonder we don’t have national policies and workplace cultures to help women better juggle work and home, if we’re deeply conflicted about whether she should be at work at all.

I was struck, too, that the GSS doesn’t ask that same question about fathers. Even the way we pose our questions is stuck in the 1950s. Our family lives, family structures and the workforce has changed utterly in the last half century, and yet our workplaces, the policies everyone knows look nice on the books but are the kiss of death to take, our laws, and our attitudes have yet to catch up with our reality. That’s where the swirl of "the overwhelm" begins.

But it doesn’t stop there. I soon discovered that men are beginning to feel as much or more overwhelm than women, now that so many no longer just want to be the distant provider father, or just the fun Dad or helper parent, but truly involved at home. They’re doing now what women did 30 years agogiving up time for sleep and personal care and spending almost all their “leisure” time with their kids. And I discovered how much longer and extreme work hourswhich have been climbing since the 1980sthe constant dings and pings of technology and a new cultural value of busyness is now ramping the feeling of overwhelm for everyone.

Like any reporter, I started down a path and just followed where the trail led. I began looking for these 30 hours of leisure. But I soon discovered you couldn’t look at leisure without looking at work, and you couldn’t understand what was happening at work without looking at home and our relationships. That’s where the subtitle comes from: Work, Love, and Playwhat I was to discover philosophers and psychologists said are the three great arenas of life, and that you need time in all three for the Good Life.

How much of the overwhelm would you say can be chalked up to a sort of shared mental statein which we are all constantly in a frenzy and talking about that frenzy, and that elevates our feeling of being overwhelmed? And how much of this feeling is justified by realityAmericans, particularly women, doing more, having such high standards for themselves, the endless chores it takes just to maintain a household, etc. etc. etc.? Also, how much of this is due to our choicesI’m thinking of this recent Onion article “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.” Is it just that we are all striving too hard to achieve too much?

It’s really all of the above. We do talk about how busy and overwhelmed we are all the timethink about how we talk to each other. “How are you?” “Fried. You?” “Same.” When was the last time someone said, “I’ve been doing absolutely nothing.” We usually launch into an exhausting laundry list of stuff.

But we are also, truly, doing more. We’re working more hoursmore extreme hours at one job at the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum and cobbling together several jobs to try to make ends meet at the lower end. Our standards for what it takes to be a good parent, particularly a good mother, are insanely high and out of proportion to all reality. Working mothers today now spend as much or more time with their kids as stay-at-home mothers in the 1960s and '70s. I found that fascinating.

We all feel like we’re not doing enough for our children, so in our guilt, we do, do, do, and overdo: more lessons, more teams, more sports, bigger birthday parties, more educational outings. And we all feed off each otherparticularly as we look to the future, see a changing global economy and so much uncertainty about what “success” will look like. There’s so much fear and we’re so worried that our kids will somehow be left out, or left behind. That’s part of what fuels the craziness of the parenting merry go round.

And as for choresman, all you have to do is open up any magazine and you’ll see that, for women, you can never be enough. Debora Spar, president of Barnard, called it the “triple whammy” in her recent book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. You have to keep house like Martha Stewart, parent like Donna Reed, work like Sheryl Sandberg, and look like Jennifer Anniston. That’s nuts. We all know it’s nuts, and yet it’s hard to break away from those cultural expectations.

I asked Peter Senge about that. How to try to live and work in a sane way when you’re in the middle of insanity: a voracious workplace that will eat you alive, friends and neighbors who raise eyebrows if you pull your kids out of some competitive activity. He gave some important advice: Create your own community, a network of like-minded people. Humans are wired to conformthat’s why these cultural pressures, however silly they may seem, wield such power over us. So find a group that fits your values that would make you happier to conform to.

To tack back for a moment to one thing you mentioned earlier ... on the griping ritual we all take part in: Do you think that sort of reciprocated venting can contribute to our stress, rather than have the, I suppose, "normal" effect of venting—that is, to let off steam?

YES! I can’t tell you how many years I bitched and moaned about how much I did at home and how unfair that felt. I always had so many people willing to chime in about how they felt the same. Then we all went back to our lives, bitching and moaning, and picking up the dirty socks and mumbling under our breaths and seething. It never changed. Maybe I felt a little better because I wasn’t alone, but all it did was reinforce this notion that men were getting away with murder and my life sucked and I was justified in being so pissed off all the time.

But it wasn’t until I met Jessica DeGroot and got to know her work with the ThirdPath Instituteshe’s been working with couples for nearly 20 years to get them to a point where the division of labor feels fairthat I began to see how poisonous that bitching and moaning is. I had to see what part I was playing in how out of whack things had become. I had to learn to see things from my husband’s perspectivewhy he’d felt stuck at work and I felt like I had to be the default parent as the mother. And it wasn’t until we began hammering out common goals and standards, dividing things up, making all the invisible work I did visible and talking, that things really began to change. Jessica is a big proponent of what she calls “active listening”where you get to bitch, cry, worry, fret, get angry, but all in the service of figuring out where you really want to go and how you can try little experiments to get there. The other person listens, doesn’t judge or chime in, but is there to support you as you figure it out.

In talking about busyness what I found fascinating was spending time in Fargo, North Dakota, of all places, where the researcher Ann Burnett has spent her career tracking the rise of busyness and living a fast-paced life as signs of importance and status. When one woman at the focus group I was observing burst in, and explained she was late by spilling off a lengthy list of all the stuff she “had” to do, how she was double booked for another meeting and then got stuck in traffic (and I looked out the window and saw only a handful of cars on the street), I first thought, wow, she sounds like I do, rushing in late all the time, and spilling off a list of all sorts of stuff I’d done. And then I thought, wow, what traffic? That’s when it hit mehow we sometimes create busyness in order to conform to this social ideal, that to be worthy is to be busy. I don’t say this to blame people. I do it, too. But the only way to change it, if we don’t like it, is to first be aware of it, be aware of our that urge to conform, to be worthy, to be enough, drives us sometimes unconsciously.

Yes! I notice this a lotfrom men toooften framed around “I get XYZ million emails per day.” Beneath the superficial complaint, the subtext frequently seems to be an assertion of that person's importance. It drives me nuts.

Ha! So true. I notice it all the time, particularly in workplaces where face time, extreme hours, and 24/7 total work devotion are prized (did I say media?). I worked through the night on a killer breaking story a few months ago, and I came into the office really grumpy the next day. When someone asked why, I snapped that I’d been up all night. “Oh yeah,” the person said, “Well I’ve been up for two nights!” It’s funny. I truly was complainingafter all the research I’ve done for the book about peak human performance science, how to get the best, most creative work out of motivated workersI knew that staying up all night may be necessary sometimes, but as a general rule, is nuts. And the other person was still very much in the grips of the one upmanship busy-petition. At that point, I stopped, and thought: Okay, you win. But I’m going home at a decent hour tonight.

So I want to talk a bit more about this work culture we have “where face time, extreme hours, and 24/7 total work devotion are prized,” as you put it. And you note that that is characteristic of media but it’s certainly not limited to media. Is this sort of cut-throat, competitive worklife a new phenomenon? Do you see it as being driven at least in part by inequality, as Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffrey have written in Mother Jones? And, regardless of what’s causing it, what can be done?

Their piece was right on in so many ways. It’s not just media companies; overwork has really become pervasive. I’m not talking about hard work. I’m all for hard work that we find  meaning in. But overwork leaves us burned out and disengaged butts in chairs at work and fried at home without the energy to do much more than flop down in front of the boob tube—not quite the leisure the ancient Greek philosophers had in mind when they said pure leisure was that place where we both refreshed the soul and become most fully human.

Economists have noted how work hours for white collar, college-educated workers began to become extreme in about the 1980s, and at the same time, social surveys were picking up a heightened sense of economic insecurity in this same group. Some people say we’re working more because we want more stuff (like that stupid Cadillac commercial that made me so angry I wrote a piece about it). While it’s true that household debt and spending on “luxury” items have gone up at the same time, it’s also true that wages have been stagnating and the costs of basic things like health care, housing, and education have gone through the roofthe cost of college has blown up nearly 900 percent in recent decades. When was the last time anyone outside hedge fund managers and the 1 percent got a 900 percent raise?

Against that backdrop comes technology and the ability to be connected 24/7 - which leads to a feeling of constantly being “on call,” that you can never quite get away from work, that the boundaries that used to keep work more contained have bled and spilled over into the hours of the day that used to be for family, for self, for leisure, for sleep.

All you have to do is look at some fascinating work done by consulting companies, when they ask CEOs and top managers at companies around the world who they think the best employees are, more than three-fourths have said: the worker without any family or caregiving responsibilities. In other words, the distant father provider of the 1950s. I say father because social science has found that married men with kids actually earn more moneywhat they call a “fatherhood bonus”because the workplace culture assumes this man will now work harder because he has a family to support. Never mind that for some 40 percent of households with kids under 18, the single or primary breadwinner is mom. That same social science finds a motherhood penaltya pay gap that can’t be explained by anything other than the fact that the woman has children, another sign of the consequences of our society’s ambivalence about working mothers. I was so struck by how this “ideal worker” norm is still so powerful and still so gendered in our workplaces and often, largely unconscious.

So what’s driving the overwork and what can be done? To really get at the heart of it, we’d have to look at our economy, our tax policy, and our workplace laws. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act protected only hourly workers from working overtime, instituting overtime pay once a worker hit 40 hours. Salaried workers can be worked, by law, to death, without once hitting that mark. And the 40-hour workweek is an artifact of the  manufacturing age; it was the amount of time Henry Ford discovered he could push his manual laborers on his assembly lines before they’d get so tired they’d make costly mistakes.

But in a knowledge economy, how long can you really push a worker before they become little more than a butt in the chair answering email? No one really knows. One researcher figures it may be about six hours a day.

What will change the overwork culture? There are several factors at play that I’m hoping will have an effect:

  • Bright spots.  I went looking for innovative "bright spots" at work, love, and play and found a host of really hopeful and cool things happening in companies large and small. For example, I have a profile of an innovative software company in Ann Arbor, Menlo Innovations, LLC, that was founded based on one principle: joy. Workers do intense, creative work, and are expected NOT to answer work phone and emails after hours or on weekends. If you come back refreshedand maybe you’ve met someone, had a new experience, expanded your horizonsyou’ll bring that freshness to work, perhaps make new connections, figure out how to solve an old problem in new ways.The more we shine a spotlight on how work can be done differently and well, the more companies and the middle managers who are the ones who implement policy changes, can follow new role models of success.
  • Millennials. They may have been raised as precious and entitled, but many are coming into workplaces assuming that they can have it allwork and lifeand are showing that they can do excellent work in their own way and in their own time. Creaky, rigid, old-fashioned cultures are beginning to adapt.
  • Baby Boomers. They’re living longer and are healthier and aren’t ready or can’t afford to sail off into the sunset at 62. But neither do they want to work 90 hours a week anymore. There’s pressure from the top end to change as well.
  • Technology. Technology is a double-edged sword right now. It’s freeing us up to work differently, but it’s also showing that it’s extending our work hours. I’m hoping that the more we use it, the smarter we’ll get about how to adapt to it. And all this recent extreme weather is showing managers how much good work can be done on snow days, etc. even when you’re not sitting at your desk under their nose.
  • Human performance science and the creative class. In a knowledge economy, what do we value? Innovation, new ideas, creativity. How do we foster that? The brain is wired for the “A Ha” moment to come, not when our noses are pressed firmly into the grindstone, but in a break in the action. When we let our mind wander. In the shower. On a walk. When we are idle, neuroscience is showing that our brains are most active.
  • Changes on the state level. While our national politics has been frozen for so long on issues of work and life, I was heartened to find states stepping in and looking for common sense policies and solutions  to help people better manage the now conflicting demands and work and life. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have state paid parental leave policiespaid for by employees a few cents out of every paycheck that is pooled into a Temporary Disability Insurance fund. Cities are passing tax incentives to companies that promote telework and flexible work, as well as exploring their own “right to request” flexible work laws. 
  • Health. NIH is in the middle of a giant, multi-year study of  how our high-stress, long hours work cultures are making us sickand that costs employers a lot of money. And the Yale Stress Center is finding in their functional MRI studies that stressthe WHO has rated us the most anxious country on the planetis actually shrinking our brains. Sick and stupid and overworked and overtired does not make for the most creative and productive workforce.

Other countries limit work hours by law (the European Union’s Working Time Directive, for instance) to both keep workers from being exploited, burned out or, in the case of Germany in particular, to keep unemployment low by spreading out work hours among more workers. Other countries also value refreshed workers and family and leisure time, and have paid leave policies when children are born, fostered, or adopted, in addition to sick time. They have paid vacation policies of as much as 30 days. In Denmark, every parent gets two “nurture days” per child until the child is eight, in order to make it to parent-teacher conferences, the school play, etc.things that in this country, many white collar workers guiltily slink out under the radar to rush to, and working class people risk getting fired to do. In the UK, within the first year that they implemented a “Right to Request” flexible work hours (which give employees the right to put together a plan for how to get their work done in a flexible way and employers could only turn them down if they could show it would hurt the business bottom line) more than one million families requested such schedules and business kept humming right along.

In the United States, we have no such policies. We value work. We work among the most extreme hours, behind only Japan and South Korea. Our divided political system has yet to figure out what the proper role of government should even be, and we hate taxes. Ironically, the OECD has done studies that have found that the U.S. spends about as much as Sweden on health and welfareit’s just that they pool their money to pay for everyone, and in the U.S., it all comes out of private pockets.

One of the most astounding studies I came across was another OECD look at productivity. I heard so often, well, this overwork culture is just the price we have to pay for being such an enormously wealthy and productive economy. But then the OECD sliced GDP per hours worked to get an hourly productivity rate, and for several of the years studied, the U.S. falls several rungs below other countries with more rational work-life policies, such as France. So we’re putting in the most hours, but we’re not actually working intense, short, productive hours. We’re just putting in a lot of meaningless face time because that’s what our workplace cultures valueat the expense of our health, our families, and our souls.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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