Sunday, May 30, 2010

How Time was Stolen from American Workers and How We Can Get It Back

At one time, I worked with a lot of survivors of domestic violence. One of the things I learned in training for this work is how gradually abuse can creep up on the victim without her – or him – being aware of it as the abuser gradually conditions the victim to accept it. Consequently, people end up accepting treatment that amounts to attempted murder without questioning it. I believe something comparable has happened in the American workplace over the last few decades, with effects that are hardly less severe than those of chronic abuse.

According to economist and author Juliet Schor, the total number of hours Americans spend working has risen steadily by approximately half a percent per year since the 1980s. In terms of hours, the average American worker added 199 hours to his or her schedule between 1973 and 2000. This translates into 24 more 8-hour days or over 3 more 40-hour weeks per year. This is outrageous, yet hardly anyone seems to question it. In the 1970s, people were predicting that new technologies being developed would shorten the work week, which it very well could have. Between 1969 and 2000, the index of labor productivity per hour went up by 80%. In other words, workers could make 80% more stuff in the same amount of time as they had before. If, as a society, we had been content to maintain the same lifestyles we’d had in the 1960s, we could all have wound up working 20-hour weeks, leaving us more time for our families, communities, volunteer work, hobbies and interests while reducing the rate at which our planet was heating up.

Alas, this was not what happened. The booming economy in the 1990s resulted in inflated consumer norms, i.e., people thinking they had to have more stuff and more gadgets to be “normal.” Meanwhile, new technologies provided new opportunities for making money, and employees were forced to work ever harder, to behave like prospectors during a gold rush so their companies could take advantage of the opportunities. During the same period, health insurance costs skyrocketed, motivating employers to hire fewer workers to work longer hours or to hire more part-time, temporary workers at low wages instead of salaried employees, for whom they would need to provide benefits. The combined result of all this is that the workday did not get shorter but instead got longer and longer for almost everyone during the last several decades of the twentieth century.
The effects of the longer work day in the office world have been devastating to individual workers and their families, and in the long run they haven’t been so great for organizations either. While it may pay off in the short run, on an organizational level, overworking employees can lead to more mistakes, accidents, injuries, illnesses, reduced quality of workmanship, and diminished productivity.

So what can one do to fight back? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Assess your own situation in terms of time. All of us have been conditioned to think only in terms of the money we make in our jobs and to ignore how we spend our most resource: time. Wake up and think about this! Are you comfortable working the number of hours you’re working? Do you feel rushed or overwhelmed? What changes might you be able to make?
  2. Remind yourself that you deserve time outside of work to spend on yourself, your family, and your community without being disturbed and that in your job you have a right to work at a reasonable enough pace to enjoy your tasks and do them well.
  3. If you believe you have an unrealistic workload, do some problem solving about how this might be reduced and consider making a proposal to your boss. Hiring more staff might be a possibility, but it’s not the only option. Perhaps someone could come in from another department to help out during busy times. Or tasks may need to be redistributed within your own department so as to make better use of people’s strengths. Perhaps a new piece of equipment or a new computer program might save you time.
  4. Discuss the overwork problem with coworkers. Find out how many hours others are working as well as how rushed they do or don’t feel during their workdays. Point out that competing for raises and promotions by working excessive hours can lead to an unhealthy escalation that is hurtful to all.
  5. Visit the website and find out about “Take Back Your Time,” an organization that is working to reduce the number of hours American workers have to work and increase the amount of vacation time.

Schor, Juliet. 2003. "The (Even More) Overworked American." Pp. 6-19 in Take Back Your Time, edited by John de Graaf. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

    Coming next: Take a vacation!

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