Americans are among the most overworked employees among industrialized countries. Despite the current increase in productivity, Americans express dissatisfaction with the economy and how the rewards of their hard work are not felt. Among industrialized countries, the United States is one of the leading countries per hours worked but they are surpassed by European nations in terms of income per capita who clock in shorter working hours. Overworking is wreaking havoc on the average worker’s life endangering his/her relationships with the family, friends and their participation in the community. Several movements are campaigning to safeguard the average American worker’s rights to paid leaves and better benefits and incentives at the workplace such as the Take Back Your Time initiative.
Why Americans work as much as they do
Family income is the chief source for providing basic necessities to function in our society. It is the means to put food in the table, clothes on our backs, and a shelter over our head. Some people work for economic stability. Because of the 2000 recession, almost 35 to 46 million workers or 25% to 33% of the American workforce have low-wage jobs. These low-wage jobs present minimal chances of wage advancement (Comprehensive Plan Unveiled to Raise Living Standards for Nation’s Low-Income Families, 2007) forcing low-wage workers who are the family’s breadwinners to hold down multiple jobs to be able to provide for their families and to cope with today’s cost of living. For most parents, to be able to provide a better future for their children, they work odd hours and even on weekends.
Some also argue that there is a change in people’s goals. Some people work for personal reasons – whether it is for purchasing power or advancement in one’s community or career. There is a need to construct and reconstruct their social identity. Consumption or one’s choice of home, car, or clothes, plays a key role in this process. When one buys or acquires something that is not to meet an absolute need, like hunger or thirst, but to define his position in the community or to establish superiority, it leads to insatiability (Stutz, 2005). People tend to adapt to their new position and then wants to be better so they work more and then buy more to further secure their position in the upper echelon of their communities. Consumerism, the belief that material goods define individuals and the roles they have in the community, takes over (Cross, 2000).
It can also be argued that demands in the workplace where multi-tasking is requisite, compels workers to work the way they do. In order to respond to client’s needs, and to fierce competition in the business and among co-workers, an employee has to be productive and learn multi-tasking thereby cramming too much work to be accomplished in any given day. Those who have family responsibilities like children to care for when they get home may feel the need to work through their lunches to cope with the workload and some may even take their work at home to meet deadlines. The amount of work and the quality of work assigned contributes to a worker’s feeling of being overworked.
Are Americans likely to increase or decrease their work hours in the future?
Without mandates to protect the average workers’ rights to have a vacation and better programs for time to be spent off work, it is very likely that Americans will increase work hours or at least keep the work hours that they currently have. Measuring productivity shouldn’t measured by the output of goods and the number of hours worked alone. We must also take into consideration the worker’s attitude and the quality of their work and the workplace. A disgruntled employee may clock in the most hours but not produce satisfying results whereas a happy employee may clock in the minimum hours but produce quality work.
People work the way they do to cope with their circumstances especially for low-wage earners. There should be work support programs that would help low-wage employees especially when the labor market fails them. According to Jared Bernstein there must be a full-employment economy, strengthened work support programs, and revitalized labor market institutions (minimum wage, labor unions, and labor standards) so that work would also benefit the employees and will be a way out of poverty (Comprehensive Plan Unveiled to Raise Living Standards for Nation’s Low-Income Families, 2007).
There should be a labor force that would provide stable employment with at least minimum wage, secure jobs and involve as much as possible regular hours to make family time feasible. There should also be in place programs for the employees that are family friendly like vacation leaves, sick leaves and time off to attend to family responsibilities like death duties or time off for single parents. It should be in such a way that the employees would not opt to take it for fear of being judged as unworthy of advancement in their career and in a way their wages as well. Employers must realize that their employees are part of their capital and are the legs on which their business stand, and as such treat them like they would prospective clients.
Companies should weigh their turn-over rate and the cost of hiring new employees against keeping their current employees. Employees must be viewed as human investment and as such must be protected and their rights safeguarded.
International Comparison of American Work Hours
As of 2005, American workers clocked an average of 1804 hours, behind Greece (2053 hours), the Czech Republic (2002 hours), Poland and Hungary (1994 hours), Mexico (1909 hours), and New Zealand (1809 hours). Norway clocked in 1360 hours and worked the fewest weeks among OECD countries.
|OECD Factbook 2007: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics – ISBN 92-64-02946-X – © OECD 2007|
|Labour market – Employment – Hours worked|
|Average hours actually worked|
|Hours per year per person in employment, 2005 or latest available year|
In many European countries, the law entitles a worker to a minimum vacation of four to five weeks per year. The United States has no mandated vacation time (Mishel, Bernstein, & Alegretto, 2006).
As of the latest available data, Norway’s income per capita is 79,154 USD, second only to Luxembourg whose income per capita is 102,284 USD, but they also had the lowest hours worked per person in a year with only 1360 hours among OECD countries. The United States ranked 9th in income per capita with 45,594 USD and ranked 8th with the longest hours worked per person.
Countries by income per capita
References: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database 2005, October 2007 Edition
It can be construed that the apparent high standard of living in the United States is not from being more efficient at work compared to other countries, but form more workers and for longer hours (Mishel, Bernstein, & Alegretto, 2006). Furthermore, the quality of life should also be taken into account when defining standards of living and productivity. We must realize that there is a need to acknowledge the state of health of the employees as well.
What impacts does working a lot have on people’s quality of life?
Being overworked is proving to be very problematic for workers. Workers who are overworked are more prone to resenting their employers and their coworkers whom they think are not working as much as they do. They are also more likely to commit errors at work thereby being less productive, more stressed, more prone to depression and more prone to health risks (Galinsky, Bond, Kim, Backon, Brownfield, & Sakai, 2005).
There is also “karoshi” or literally death by overwork in corporate Japan. It was legally recognized as a cause of death in the 1980s and by 2005, 40 percent of the cases were successful. Surviving families are awarded an estimated $20,000 every year by the government and may get up to $1 million from the company in damages.
Recently, a court hearing has pressured companies to shift their values when the Nagoya District Court declared that Hiroko Kenichi was a victim of karoshi when he passed away in 2002, at 4am at work (Death by Overwork in Japan, 2007). He was 30 years old and is survived by his wife Uchino and their two children, aged three and one. He put in 80 hours of overtime every month for six months before he passed away. His company however treated those hours as voluntary and unpaid but the court declared that those overtime hours spent on training workers, attending meetings and writing reports were integral parts of his duties as a Quality Control Manager.
We have to acknowledge the Japanese culture in that their view of self-sacrifice for the greater good of the whole, whether it is their company or their country, is the honorable thing to do. The fact that they are a nation of hard-working individuals is not negative. However, it is also important that these same hard-working individuals be protected as well as their rights for paid overtime hours, paid vacation leaves and better employee support programs. It is the only proper thing to do for they have contributed so much to the advancement of their companies and to their country as a whole.
Imagine how much workers can be, whether they are in America or Japan, when they feel that the company that they value, also values them.
Impacts of Overwork on Families
Overwork has wrought its effects on families in other countries as well. The concern of overworking on families especially for those with young children and responsibilities for elders putting workers in a bind of having to work longer to be able to provide even if it upsets family time has been voiced in Australia as well (Saunders, 2007).
One of the effects of overwork on family life is that the relationship of the overworking parent and the children are less than satisfactory, a pattern that is similar for younger or older adolescents and for sons and daughters (Crouter, Bumpus, Head, & McHale, May, 2001). Needless to say, overworking means less time spent with the family. Tension occurs when the overworking parent fails to meet the demands at home for it is only natural for the spouse to miss him or her and for the children to miss their parent.
It is also the same for those who have elder responsibilities and for those who are pregnant. Expecting mothers may even be at a greater disadvantage for fear of being shunted aside for promotions just because they are pregnant. Some feel that employers are prejudiced towards them.
Overwork and Leisure
About 79% of American employees have access to paid vacations although 36% of those employees do not plan to use their full vacations. Again, the issue of job security arises. Workers sometimes fear using their vacation time for being used against them in the advancement of their careers. The ordinary number of paid vacation days is about 16.6 days for employees.
A recent study shows that 69% of those who take their vacations relax with their family or friends or by themselves, 19% percent use their vacation time for family responsibilities such as funeral duties, taking care of a family member who is ill, or for personal illnesses. Those who use their vacation time for reserved military service, other jobs or to go to school is about 13% (Galinsky, Bond, Kim, Backon, Brownfield, & Sakai, 2005). The results show that those who have greater job responsibilities, high earners, those who work longest hours, those who work outside normal work hours and basically work-centered individuals work while on vacation.
Steps toward work/life balance
We have let ourselves get caught up in the race that we are always in a hurry. We are living an instant life where everything instant and fast is the norm – instant coffee, fast food, instant noodles. We are going through our lives in a blur without experiencing it and sacrificing our relationships with our families and friends. It is true and it is instinctive that we should want to improve and evolve. Needless to say it is also understandable that we work in the hopes of providing a better future for our families. However it is also true that we should take our time to be with them, not just in our thoughts but to be actually with them and spend time with them. We should weigh what all of this hurrying is costing us. There should be a change in our views and our priorities. Time management is simply not enough. We have to stop and smell the roses.
There are a lot of organizations campaigning for a change in how we run our lives. One of these is Slow Food USA, an offshoot of the Slow Movement in Europe, which advocates both healthy ingredients in cooking as well as enjoying meals (Slow Movement Home Page, 2008). The Slow Movement aspire to respond to the issue of “time poverty” by establishing connections – with our family, our community, our friends, and our life. Carl Honore, a London-based journalist and author of “In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed”, has been the unofficial godfather of a growing cultural shift toward slowing down.
The Take Back Your Time initiative in North America is campaigning for more personal time and simpler lives. They also address the issue of consumerism and its effects on our day to day lives. The technology that helps us with household chores like the vacuum, the washing machine and the like, has been more or less an excuse for cramming more activities in our day. They are lobbying to initiate legislation addressing the need for paid family and vacation leaves and a cap on mandatory overtime. October 24 is marked as “Take Back Your Time Day”.
The State of Working America: Executive Summary
The economy is improving. It is a statistical fact. Productivity, or the output of goods and services per hour worked, increased. From 1.4 percent a year in the mid-1970s it increased to 3.1 percent a year from 2000 to 2005 (Mishel, Bernstein, & Alegretto, Executive Summary, 2006). However, the improvement is not felt across the income classes. Dissatisfaction is voiced by many Americans. The gap between the upper echelon and the lower classes is amplified.
For shared prosperity to come to fruition, there are several factors must be established. We must have labor market institutions (strong collective bargaining), a decent minimum wage, and the most important a tight labor market (Mishel, Bernstein, & Alegretto, Executive Summary, 2006). These are key ingredients for the improvement to be felt by all.
The family’s income is a key factor of their economic security. Middle- and lower-income families face wage stagnation and the disparity between their incomes and productivity growth hindering their economic advancement. Despite the productivity growth, the real income of the median family dropped by 1,600 USD in 2004.
Middle class families increased their incomes by having the women join the work force. Although it is good for women independence, it has also put a strain on balancing family and work.
Income mobility among classes show that there is a high correlation (0.6) between parent’s income status and their children’s in the future. As compared to other countries that U.S. economists criticize for having too much social benefits they show a low correlation meaning that they have more income mobility. A peasant’s son may end up at the top exhibiting the classic rags-to-riches story. Income mobility greatly affects the inequality among the classes. Of course there are many factors that affect social mobility – among these is education and discrimination. It follows that the upper classes have more access to quality education than the lower classes amplifying the gap between classes.
Despite the steady rise in productivity the access to medium-wage jobs are limited and low-wage earners are forced to put in more hours to meet their family’s demands. The rise in productivity also coincides with the rise in unemployment and rise in cost of living making it hard for the low-wage earner to support himself and his family without putting extra hours. Clearly, high productivity does not necessarily mean that the condition of low-wage earners get better. This together with unemployment and the fall of the real value of minimum wage contribute to the widening gap between the fifths of the wage earners.
It is also of note that wealth inequality is greater than salary inequality. The upper 1% and 5% claim the majority of wealth distribution. The average wealth of the top 1% is about $15 million while the middle-fifth is about $81,000. Furthermore, 30% of households have a net worth smaller than $10,000 and their net worth is just half of the poverty threshold in 2005. In other words, 30% of households are in twice poverty. The disparity of wealth is more felt across races, Black Americans and Hispanics having comparably less than that of white Americans.
The United States is a very rich country as evident by its income per capita when compared with European countries who are all OECD members. However, it is important to note that European countries have social protections that raise their standard of living. The United States spent the largest in medical care however 46 million Americans do not have health insurance and have very limited access to health care. This is another indicator of the wide disparity in wealth distribution in the United States.
The State of Working America: Facts – Work Hours
The United States is one of the countries having the longest hours worked per person. In 2004, American workers were only second to New Zealand’s (Mishel, Bernstein, & Alegretto, Facts – Work Hours, The State of Working America 2006/2007, 2006). European countries who have the lowest hours worked leave the United States behind in terms of per capita income. High living standard in the United States are defined by the hours worked per person every year while European’s high living of standard is defined by their social protections.
Despite the continuing rise of productivity, there is a decrease in annual wages brought about by decreasing employment opportunities for low-wage earners resulting in falling family incomes and an increase in poverty.
Take Back Your Time: Why Should You Care
Overwork affects all of us. Americans work longer hours barely feeling the benefits of their hard work. To top it all, among industrialized countries, the United States do not have minimum paid leave. Take Back Your Time is an organization that campaigns for minimum paid leave ensuring workers to have a vacation and most importantly, that when they take their vacation, it would not be held against them for promotions.
In a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health on 168 countries (www.globalworkingfamilies.org) it shows that among those countries, the United States is one of the only three countries that does not guarantee for maternity or paternity leave during childbirth. The study also reveals what the United States does not have or offer. For example, guaranteed paid sick leaves that 139 countries offer or guaranteed paid vacation leaves which 96 countries offer. The U.S. also does not have a cap on workweek hours or overtime while 84 countries do. Parents get paid time off when their children are sick in 37 countries but not for Americans.
Take Back Your Time recognizes the need for Americans to enjoy the benefits that other industrialized countries offer their citizens.
Overwork and time stress or time poverty denies us time with our family, friends, and our community jeopardizing our relationships. It denies us of active participation in our community. It is a health hazard. It denies other people job opportunities because current employees are forced to put in more hours.
Slowly, people are recognizing the price of working too hard and shifting values towards the connections that we have. Initiatives like this, respond to the growing number of workers who feel harried and burned out by the fast pace of life today.
Take Back Your Time: Time to Care Policy Agenda
Take Back Your Time urges legislators to create laws around ideas that would protect American workers. Their agenda are as follows:
- Guaranteed paid leave for parents for the birth or adoption of a child.
- At least one week of paid sick leaves must be available for all employees.
- Three weeks of guaranteed paid vacation leave for every year worked.
- A cap on compulsory overtime allowing employees to negotiate for overtime.
- To make Election Day a Holiday to recognize the need for civic and political participation of Americans.
- To make it easier for Americans to opt part-time work.
Comprehensive Plan Unveiled to Raise Living Standards for Nation’s Low-Income Families. (2007, October 2). Retrieved February 6, 2008, from Economic Policy Institute: http://www.epi.org
Cross, G. (2000). An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press.
Crouter, A. C., Bumpus, M. F., Head, M. R., & McHale, S. M. (May, 2001). Implications of Overwork and Overload for the Quality of Men’s Family Relationships. Journal of Marriage and the Family Vol. 63 No. 2 , 404-416.
Death by Overwork in Japan. (2007, December 19). Retrieved February 6, 2008, from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10329261
Galinsky, E., Bond, J. T., Kim, S. S., Backon, L., Brownfield, E., & Sakai, K. (2005). Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much Executive Summary. New York: Families and Work Institute.
Honore, C. (2006). Home page. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from In Praise of Slow: http://www.inpraiseofslow.com/index.php
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Mishel, L., Bernstein, J., & Alegretto, S. (2006). Facts – Work Hours, The State of Working America 2006/2007. Retrieved February 2008, from Economic Policy Institute : http://www.stateofworkingamerica.org/news/SWA06Facts-Work_Hours.pdf
Public Policy Agenda. (2007). Retrieved February 6, 2008, from Take Back Your Time: http://www.timeday.org/time_to_care.asp
Saunders, R. C. (2007, May 1). Keeping Time: Australian Families and the Culture of Overwork. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC): www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au
Slow Movement Home Page. (2008). Retrieved February 6, 2008, from Slow Movement: http://www.slowmovement.com/
Stutz, J. (2005). Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren: Progress and Prospects After 75 Years. New York City.
Why Should You Care? (2007). Retrieved February 6, 2008, from Take Back Your Time: http://www.timeday.org/default.asp#why