Work, Work, Work

This article in The Economist (“Get A Life“), which examines long work hours and productivity, touches upon some salient dynamics that exist in the American workforce. I’m not sure what to make of this statistic:

The Greeks are some of the most hardworking in the OECD, putting in over 2,000 hours a year on average. Germans, on the other hand, are comparative slackers, working about 1,400 hours each year. But German productivity is about 70% higher.

Some of the article’s commenters note (correctly IMO) that the increasingly long hours American white-collar employees work is not due to any sort of ‘psychological compulsion’ to work, but is rather a structural consequence. Reflecting a reality I witness myself every day, one commenter writes:

I don’t work long hours for satisfaction; I have no choice. Managers are expected to put in as many hours as it takes to get the job done. Work/life balance is of little consideration. With the advent of technology, employees are thought to be able to do more work in less time. We are expected to do everything, with no secretary or administrative assistant. We do our own filing, copying, travel arrangements with no assistance from anyone. It is not the best use of my time to complete these activities, but I have no choice. Accordingly my “hourly rate” is significantly low. Companies operate lean these days and don’t want the headcount that having administrative assistants requires. They don’t want the cost of salaries and benefits. Accordingly, the burden on the manager increases, and they spend hours on non-productive activities. If they had help to complete the mundane maintenance activities, they could concentrate better on the important aspects of their position, and, therefore be more productive and more valuable to their employer.

Another commenter references this Harvard Business Review article, which begins:

Steve Wanner is a highly respected 37-year-old partner at Ernst & Young, married with four young children. When we met him a year ago, he was working 12- to 14-hour days, felt perpetually exhausted, and found it difficult to fully engage with his family in the evenings, which left him feeling guilty and dissatisfied. He slept poorly, made no time to exercise, and seldom ate healthy meals, instead grabbing a bite to eat on the run or while working at his desk.

Wanner’s experience is not uncommon. Most of us respond to rising demands in the workplace by putting in longer hours, which inevitably take a toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally. That leads to declining levels of engagement, increasing levels of distraction, high turnover rates, and soaring medical costs among employees. We at the Energy Project have worked with thousands of leaders and managers in the course of doing consulting and coaching at large organizations during the past five years. With remarkable consistency, these executives tell us they’re pushing themselves harder than ever to keep up and increasingly feel they are at a breaking point.

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