Is America Overworked?
Life + Money

Is America Overworked?


It’s midnight on a Wednesday and I’m sitting at my keyboard after a 10-hour day trying to finish an article on whether Americans work too much. This is a prank, right?

Sadly, it’s more like a typical day for most freelance writers, and we’re becoming part of the norm. With an increasingly competitive job market, Americans are logging in more time at work and skipping vacation time. According to the left leaning Center for American Progress, 86 percent of U.S. men and 67 percent of women work more than 40 hours a week, and American families worked an average of 11 hours more per week in 2006 than they did in 1979. Though the shift has helped companies cut expenses and increased U.S. productivity, a growing number of studies show that the extra work is negatively affecting our health, family lives, and effectiveness at work.

For one, workers and their bosses often are not being paid for their extra time. Twenty-four percent of employees and forty-seven percent of employers work six or more hours a week without pay, concluded a 2007 study by corporate staffing firm Randstad. And research in 2008 by the Pew Research Center showed that 22 percent of Americans are expected to respond to work email when they’re not at work, half check job email on weekends, and a third do so while on vacation.

That is, of course, if they ever get to take a vacation. According to a 2009 report by the human resources firm Mercer, after 10 years of service U.S. worker bees normally get 15 days of paid leave, while the Germans get 20, the British 28, and the Fins 30. But now come several new surveys last November announcing that we’re not even taking the vacation we do have. One, by travel company Expedia, found workers left 2 of their 13 days on the table—that’s $34.3 billion in free labor.

There’s an upside to all of those extra hours of course. Though it’s driven by technological advances and increased efficiency as well as labor, U.S. productivity growth nearly tripled from 2008 to 2010, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. And our per capita income is much higher than many European countries (26 percent higher than Finland’s, 27 percent higher than Germany’s, 34 percent higher than Great Britain’s).

[20 percent of employees reporting high overwork levels said they make a lot of mistakes at work.]

But the long hours are taking a toll. A 2004 review by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that in 16 of 22 studies, overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, and increased mortality. Two recent studies have linked long work hours to a higher risk of depression—one of them, in the June 2008 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, sampled 10,000 people and showed higher levels of anxiety and depression in those who put in the most overtime. As for the effects on those close to us, in a 2007 study by the American Psychological Association, 52 percent of employees reported that their job demands interfered with their family or home responsibilities.

Overtime may even undermine company profits. As part of a study in 2005 by the nonprofit research group the Families and Work Institute, 20 percent of employees reporting high overwork levels said they make a lot of mistakes at work, versus none of those who had low overwork levels. For some professions, like the air-traffic controller who fell asleep on the job after four consecutive overnight shifts, this could mean the difference between life and death. Seventy-four percent of employees say that work is a big source of stress, and one in five has missed work as a result of stress, noted a 2007 American Psychological Association study. Sabatini Fraone, who implements health and wellness initiatives in Fortune 100-level companies, says companies that place a priority on work-life balance see a direct correlation to their employees’ ability to innovate, think creatively, and produce results.

Advocates for more time off, like the Center for a New American Dream and the Seattle-based Take Back Your Time, say all of that evidence should push the government and companies to ensure more work-life balance. One U.K. organization, the New Economics Foundation, even argues for a 21-hour work week. In the 2010 report, the foundation highlights a few experiments with very shortened weeks. In 1974, for example, for six weeks the British government imposed a three-day week on all commercial users of electricity to save energy during a time of high inflation and energy prices. Though analysts expected the country’s productivity to plummet, when the crisis ended, they found that industrial production had dropped by only 6 percent. Employees had become more productive the days they were at work, and fewer people called out sick, making up the difference in the lost productivity from shorter weeks.

Legislating anything like that in the United States would be more complicated. Aside from businesses protesting increased costs, more people in America like to work long hours than in Europe, says Carl van Horn, director of Rutgers University’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. “Our vacations are shorter; our work hours are longer—that’s rooted in our Calvinist tradition, and it’s been that way for decades,” he says. A paper in the 2005 journal Economic Policy supports that analysis: a sample of western Europeans and Americans were asked whether they’d be willing to work so many hours that they’d interfere with the rest of their lives—Americans were far more likely to say yes than were Europeans.

Claire Bula, 32, head of marketing at a Philadelphia software design company, captures that attitude. In a previous job as assistant state prosecutor for Delaware, she actually had European-style vacation time—a full five weeks. But she never used more than two. In her current job, she puts in 50-plus hours per week, and it’s been four years since she’s taken a week off. Yet no one is telling her to work that much or not take leave: “I want to do the best job I can… I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she says. “It’s not that my employer has ever said ‘don’t take your vacation days, you don’t deserve them.’”

But in this economy, the boss may not have to say anything—“people feel that they need face time in the office,” said Stuart Rubinstein, managing director at TD Ameritrade, commenting to CNN on the Expedia study. “They worry that being out of the office might make them next on the list.”

Whether employees take time off or not, many companies are seeing the downsides of overworked employees and are offering better vacation perks. Google offers 15 days off during the first year at the company and 25 days off after six years, Intel rewards employees with two-month sabbaticals every seven years, and IBM, Best Buy, Netflix and HubSpot have stopped counting employees’ vacation days altogether. Smaller companies have taken note. Joe Reynolds, CEO of a special-event planning company, gives his staff a fully paid one-month sabbatical to a destination of their choice every 5 years because he thinks it improves performance.

But for the most part, these companies remain lonely outliers in a country with no paid-vacation laws or limits on overtime. For now, it’s back to work America—calling in to the office on weekends, checking work messages on Blackberrys during dinner, and finishing writing assignments in the dead of night.