clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Has work overtaken your life?

"Spend Free Time," says the billboard. In the background, a bit out of focus, a woman in a swimming pool smiles at a man in the foreground who is sitting by the pool's edge. The man is wearing swim trunks but is working on his laptop computer.

The billboard is an ad for the Grand America Hotel's "luxury spa weekend," but the message is universal: In our "free time" we're still working. Or at least we look like we are.

"In our culture, jobs are so much a part of our identity," says Joanne Ciulla, author of "The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work." "It's a status symbol to look busy."

In fact "the phrase 'I know you must be very busy' is the functional equivalent of bowing," says Ciulla, who is a professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

And, in fact, Americans do work pretty hard. Harder than the French, for sure, says Mel Fugate of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and an expert on employee performance. Of course working hard in an industrial society doesn't look like working hard in a culture where people do back-breaking work just to survive, he notes.

But compared to the rest of the industrialized world, Fugate says, Americans do work long hours. According to 2001 figures from the International Labour Organization, American workers put in an average of 1,979 hours of work a year, compared with 1,467 in Germany, 1,602 in Sweden and 1,842 in Japan. According to 2002 figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 8th in annual hours worked, at 1,815 hours per worker. This ranking puts Korea at No. 1, with over 2,400 hours.

The average work week for managers and professionals in America is now 42 hours, but nearly 3 in 10 of those workers (4 in 10 if just men are included) put in 49 hours or more a week, according to a 2000 report of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Employers who recruit on the University of Utah campus, says Dana Sowby, the U.'s associate director of Career Services, often tell students up front that they're going to have to work more than a 40-hour week.

Richard Jewkes worked 80 hours last week, putting together a new ad campaign for the Grand America Hotels and Resorts. He normally doesn't work that hard, he says — usually it's just 60 hours. Like the man pictured in the hotel's current billboard, Jewkes takes his laptop along on trips, although in the past two years he hasn't gone on any extended vacations. "I just can't get to it," says Jewkes, who is director of creative services for Grand America Hotels and Resorts and the Grand America oil company.

Technology is part of the problem, says Ciulla. "There used to be a time when technology produced things we called 'labor-saving devices.' " But today's cell phones, faxes, PDAs, laptops and wireless connections are actually labor-producing devices, she says. "So, as a result, technology doesn't really give us any leisure."

So if you're sitting at your child's soccer game but you're on the line with someone from work, you're really still at the office, Ciulla says. "Because we've lost the divide between work and home, we're always on call." (On the other hand, to be sure, sometimes when we're at the office we're answering e-mail that has nothing to do with work.)

Even in Europe, Ciulla says, work hours are increasing. "I fear Europe will slowly become like us." In Germany, she says, some companies are starting to reduce vacations from the typical five or six weeks. In urban Spain, the typical midday siesta has disappeared for some businesses, because traffic congestion makes it too hard to go home, and workers need to be in touch with international clients in different time zones, she says. "Now lunch is just an hour but they're still staying at work till 9" at night.

Most U.S. workers still have a good work ethic, the experts say. At the core of our willingness to put in extra hours, says Fugate, is America's competitive nature, memories of the Great Depression passed on to the baby boomer generation, and a belief among successive generations of immigrants that this is really the land of opportunity. And, adds Ciulla, there is "the work ethic of fear."

"There is this unease about unemployment, regardless of whether the unemployment rate is high or low," she says. "The ideology of business now is to do more with less. And businesses are continually bought and sold. So business is precarious." Many people don't take vacations or parental leave because "they're afraid they'll lose their place in the rat race," she says.

Still, some people are making an effort to not work all the time. Steve Hallmark, operations manager for a company that makes driving simulation equipment, went to Lake Powell this summer and, for a change, didn't keep his cell phone on. It's so easy to get sucked into what's happening at the office, he says. "This time I decided to detach myself from the tether of my work. Because you need that. . . . The purpose of a vacation is to clear your head."