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

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.

Presented by

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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