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Caught in the Cycle of Overwork
Why is the idea of working less such a heresy to Americans?
Published first in Business Ethics, September/October 1994  

Last December, the German automaker, Volkswagen, reached an agreement with its unions to cut the work week from thirty-six to twenty-nine hours and slash wages by 10 percent. Soon thereafter, Italy's Fiat began holding similar talks The slogan the unions there are championing is, "Lavorare meno lavorare tutti" "Work less, and everyone works."

At about the same time in France, a young Arthur Andersen consultant, Pierre Larrouturow, was making headlines by proposing that the country move from the current five-day, thirty-nine-hour work week to a four-day, thirty-three-hour week in 1996.

Also last December, the United Steelworkers of Canada asked Prime Minister Jean Chretian to begin studying ways to reduce the standard hours of work Meanwhile, craft and services employees of the Canadian Telephone Employee's Association have already agreed to a four-day, thirty-six-hour work week

In stark contrast to all this activity beyond our borders, the badly battered U S workforce has seen precious little attention paid to the problems of overwork and underemployment As Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American and the lead panelist in this year's Stakeholder Dialogue, has pointed out, American workers are cramming more hours into their work week than ever before But nobody employees or employers is prepared to talk about something as dramatic as a shorter work week

American business has embraced flexible scheduling options within the forty-hour week job sharing, compressed work weeks, flex-time, and the like--- and a few companies will allow employees to reduce their hours if they have a dependent. But employees have been slow to take advantage of these options A study by Work Family Directions of Boston found that less than 2 percent of eligible employees take advantage of job sharing, telecommuting, and part-time work Indeed, the idea of working less and living more for our own and society's health simply is not yet a valid topic of discussion in this country.

Why is the idea of working less such a heresy to Americans? Probably because we are caught in a larger web of wants, desires, and assumptions that conflict with the desire for leisure time In simpler terms, we work to spend and we don't know how to stop.


Face it: We Americans like to spend money. Consumption is intertwined with virtually every facet of our lives We buy things not simply to survive, but to celebrate, to show we care about others, to show our status, to make life easier, to bring ourselves happiness, to create an identity, to use for our leisure, to use in our homes, to save time and to spend time.

It hasn't always been thus, according to Gary S. Cross, author of Time and Money The Making of the Consumer Culture (Routledge, 1993) "In the 1920's," he says, "the assumption was that needs would be satiated " At that time many were at work on a new leisure society known as the democratic leisure movement and concerned about the potential decline of the work ethic.

Sometime between the world wars, however, society's thinking shifted Increased production and higher wages were linked and, in turn, those higher wages created a greater demand for goods. The work-to-spend cycle was born. Other factors added momentum to it:

  • Manufacturers, advertisers, and marketers discovered that psychological needs were less finite than physiological needs, and began to produce new goods and market them with that in mind.
  • Fresh from their "empty" time of unemployment during the Depression, people began to elevate the value of work to a higher plane.
  • The government began to strongly endorse retail consumption as the heart of a healthy economy.

We are still living in this mindset. We measure our economy's health primarily by how much we consume. And in order to continue to consume at increasing levels, we also must continue to work at increasing levels.

There is an insidious cycle here. We buy the latest, labor-saving or time-saving devices expecting to save time or work. But, in order to buy the devices, we must maintain our heavy work schedule. "The choice to consume more is the choice to be more exhausted," Cross says. "You make a decision to have weaker family ties, to have fewer friends. There are all sorts of things that go into the decision to have more goods."

We have benefited greatly from many of these products and services. But they have also become tightly enmeshed in our culture and have come to symbolize many of our non-material wants and needs. "We give ourselves position, status, and value through our goods," Cross explains. "It isn't just a matter of merchandisers forcing us to buy stuff we don't need. Our whole being, our social and psychological sense of worth, are thoroughly embroiled in a culture of consumption and are so mediated by goods that we can't think of alternatives."

Among the many assumptions that underlie our propensity to buy and to work more to afford it is the notion that consuming will make us happy. But Alan T. Durning, a researcher with the Worldwatch Institute and author of How Much is Enough? (Norton, 1992) reports that surveys by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago reveal that the percentage of Americans who admit that they are "very happy" today is about the same as it was in 1957.

We also believe that consumption is needed for a healthy economy. At first glance, this logic appears to make sense, because if no one buys things, then there's no need for people to produce and sell them. And if people are not working, they're not earning and spending.

There are two problems with this logic, however. First, after forty years of rampant consumerism our economy remains as vulnerable as ever to the ebb and flow of inflation, interest rates, and the general vagaries of the free market system. Unemployment levels have remained relatively constant (seldom ranging above 10 percent or below 6 percent), while the percentage of Americans living in poverty has actually risen in recent years to levels well above what we experienced at the dawn of our consumer age. Second, this syllogism assumes that a healthy economy is equivalent to a healthy society. Clearly, this is not the case either.

If we consumed less (and worked less), our economy would be less active, but would it be less healthy? Benjamin K. Hunnicutt, co-editor of The Society for the Reduction of Human Labor Newsletter and author of Work Without End (Temple University Press, 1988), contends that many of our most vexing social problems, ranging from ghetto poverty and youth violence to the destruction of the environment, are linked with our inability to look at the world other than in terms of making money and working.

The work-spend cycle, in fact, is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that it's hard to imagine an alternative. Try to picture this scenario, for instance: Work would stop every day at three. You would return home and prepare your meal (there would be time for you to cook, rather than call Domino's), rest a little, and reflect on your day. Rather than collapsing in front of the TV (an activity whose popularity has risen with overwork), your evening might include a reading group, gardening, home improvement courses, playing cards or games with friends, sports, becoming more politically involved, working on a church-related project, or volunteering in some community project. Such a life would reduce the cycle of working at a frantic pace and then spending to compensate for the time we have lost.

The connection between consumerism and overwork suggests that instead of focusing on our time and how we spend it, we should be focusing on our money and what we spend it on. Looking more closely at what we buy and why should allow us to begin to see where we can cut back and redirect our energies more effectively.

Obviously, this is not as simple as it sounds. "Part of the difficulty is that we don't have a moral equivalent to the consumer society," Cross admits. "Our notions of self worth, of social position, of getting ahead, are all organized by consumption." So, what's needed is a complete reevaluation of how we achieve our basic goals in life. Without this reorientation, Cross says, "the whole question of choice between goods and time more or less evaporates and you end up, as Juliet Schor points out, in a culture of work and spend."


Indeed, as fixated as we are as a society on consumption, our addiction to work may be every bit as destructive. Hunnicutt argues that work is becoming the focus of our entire lives, just as happens with other addictions. He suggests that by the 1 920s and '30s the very nature of the work ethic had changed. Instead of being bound within a larger, theological superstructure with the clear and obtainable goal of satisfying necessities, work had become its own justification. Other facets of life—-leisure, family, and community--began to revolve around work rather than being balanced by it. Now we habitually use work to answer such questions as: Who am I? Where am I going? What am I doing here?— questions religion used to answer.

In an American Management Association study reported in a Fortune article in November 1992, nearly half the managers who responded said they worked harder and longer at their jobs in order to get away from pressures in other parts of their lives.

If that sounds to you like the rationale alcoholics use, you're not alone. "Work is an ideal addiction," says Barbara A. Gorski, a St. Paul based consultant who is studying work addiction, and served on this year's Stakeholder Dialogue panel. It's ideal because working too much is not illegal and we're not incapacitated by it at least in the beginning. In fact, having a strong work ethic is something to which most of us aspire.

Gorski admits that there are times when we may need to work overtime. But working fifty to sixty hours a week regularly is more than an occasional, difficult situation. She likens it to someone who has a couple of drinks every night. It appears not to be harming them, so they don't think they are addicted. "Being addicted to work is a slippery process with many shades of gray. Like other addictions, it's progressive."

Work addiction can be compared to common food addictions, which come in a variety of forms, she explains. There are the anorexic workers—those people who work very little but talk about it all the time. These people spend all morning making their to-do list and the afternoon getting their desk organized only to start the process over the next morning. And then there are work bingers, people that actively seek jobs where they do thirty-seven to forty hours of work in three days and then purge their system on the other four days by doing nothing productive.

We are treating work addiction as we treated alcoholism in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, she argues. "We sort of laughed at alcoholics; you would think nothing of buying a round of drinks for everyone. We didn't think about alternative beverages. The way many of us unknowingly encouraged alcohol abusers or alcoholics to drink is the way a lot of managers encourage work abusers or work addicts to work."

And why not? Isn't it clearly in the best interests of business to squeeze the most productivity out of each employee? It can be plausibly argued that the entire set of work family, flex-time initiatives that have been developed over the past decade were created to maximize each employee's productivity. So why should business be concerned about work addicts in its midst? Because there are costs to bear from overworked employees: The quality of work can decrease, worker compensation claims can rise, workplace morale can plummet, and turnover can soar.

But even if business were to embrace a shorter workweek, would the American worker agree to it? So far, the evidence indicates that we're too caught up in the work spend cycle to change. If we don't, however, the consequences for ourselves, our jobs, and even our planet, could be grievous.


Stepping off the work-and-spend tread-mill will be disorienting at best. We cannot simply arrive at these decisions logically and implement the solutions the next day. In the first place, our focus on work has exhausted us. Much of what we need to envision new ways of relating, new passions to champion are unimaginable now because we are simply too tired. Once we become rested, new horizons will open up for us.

"The transition, like any transition, from what one always thought was the correct way to live one's life going upwards, as opposed to sideways or downwards is difficult," says Amy Saltzman, who chronicled the process of a number of people making these types of changes in her book, Downshifting (HarperCollins, 1991). "Once they get past that and it can be a hard thing to get past then I think what happens is people realize they are so much more at peace with themselves that it's not an issue anymore." For Saltzman, it's the redefining of success that is crucial to this transition.

In many ways, this must be an individual struggle. It is an individual process to unbundle consumption from our needs, feelings, and values. And it is an individual task to strike a balance between work, family, community, God, and leisure; each person's balance is different. Still, business can provide an environment that allows for this exploration.

Employees and employers should work together to build clearer boundaries between work and non-work, and enforce those boundaries. Businesses could draft stricter policies requiring employees to take their vacations and prohibiting them from working in the office on weekends. Of course, employees can take work home, but forcing them to take it home may cause some of them to think twice about what they're doing.

Managers need to be sensitive to overwork as a potential problem. They should talk frankly to employees who stay late whenever they can't complete all their work on a given day. While may appear honorable that they want to stay, in the long run these employees run the risk of burning out and their productivity may drop. Drawing clear boundaries around work helps people to remember that there is more to life than their job.

Managers also must deal more directly with the deception of "face time," the notion that employees need to be seen at work late at night and on the weekends in order to get ahead. Too often, face time is really "fake time." Managers need to make it clear to their employees that they are being evaluated on the work they accomplish during regular business hours.

(Telecommuters, who have virtually no "face time," are especially at risk of work addiction, (Gorski says, and managers should monitor the on-line time of these isolated employees to ensure that they are not falling into addictive work habits.)

Business can make working less hours easier by providing the opportunities for people to cut back perhaps by offering them the choice of time or money at the point of a raise -or providing full benefits to part-timers so parttime work becomes more attractive. And, as work is redefined, business can focus more on outcomes rather than tasks and be sensitive to right-sizing work. All these measures would allow those who have embarked on a personal reassessment of their work spend cycle the time to experiment.

Some companies have already begun to move in this direction. Intel, the Santa Clara, California, maker of silicon chips, has surveyed its employees on the issue of overwork and is more aggressively encouraging them to take time off. The company also offers an eight-week paid sabbatical every seven years. At Coopers & Lybrand, the giant accounting and consulting firm, executives are placing less emphasis on hours worked in performance evaluations. "We're putting much more emphasis on what clients think and much less emphasis on sheer hours," Anthony Conti, vice chairman, human resources, told The Wall Street Journal.

The consumption side of the equation is much trickier, however. Though a few companies (Patagonia especially comes to mind) have attempted to address the issue of over-consumption by providing fewer products for consumers, and limiting their own growth, it is not an avenue many businesses would choose to travel. Our entire economy is based upon growth. Most business people would argue that higher employee wages, community investment, environmental protection, and a host of other laudable goals all depend upon steady company growth and an ever-rising GDP.

There are, however, indications that a healthy economy does not have to depend upon the sort of work-and-spend cycle that afflicts most Americans. In both Germany and France, a shorter work week has not translated into a faltering economy. German workers enjoy a thirty-five-hour work week and six weeks of paid vacation a year, and the country boasts one of the world's most powerful economies. The French government mandated a thirty-nine-hour work week and five weeks of annual vacation in 1981. Since 1986, its economy has grown at a faster rate than ours.

Can American business and its workers move in a similar direction? Though it may seem inconceivable, given the pervasiveness of our work/spend addiction, history reminds us that seemingly impossible change does occur. After all, it was the U.S. that introduced the forty-hour week in 1938, at a time when many Europeans were toiling up to fifty- six hours a week. At that time economists warned that the results would be disastrous. Instead, it focused American business on quality rather than quantity, and our economy boomed.

For such a revolution to recur, however, both employers and employees need to begin seriously addressing the web of desires and fears that sustain the work/spend cycle. It won't be painless --fighting addictions never are but it could be the necessary step we need to build a healthier society.

When Work Is Just Too Much Fun (Side Bar)
I like work. I believe work to be constructive, stimulating, and interesting. During my thirty-odd years at Honeywell before I retired, I liked to fly to London, Brussels, Frankfurt, and back to Minneapolis all in one week—to go to Washington and back in a day. I liked being in the little center at the airport on the phone to some guy out in L.A. trying to make some deal because I only had fifteen minutes to catch the airplane.

It's all very stimulating. It's far more important to me than the consumption part. (I didn't care about the consumption; it just accumulated without me watching.) And far more important than my leisure. I've just learned in the last few years to enjoy leisure. Before, my leisure consisted of visiting my kids in school, though I didn't do enough of it.

Now I tell my graduate students, "Do as I say, not as I did. Smell the roses; it's much better for you " It is not good to work six days a week, twelve hours a day. It is interesting, constructive, challenging, and always stimulating, but too much so.


Warde F. Wheaton was President of the Aerospace and Defense Division of Honeywell until l 989.

It's a Culture Thing or Is It? (Side Bar)
When I was sent by Honeywell to work in France, the French company was not faring well. It had become a statement in the company that the French would never do well.

Of course, the French workers had picked up on this and felt badly. When I arrived, I took this belief as an insult to the French, and decided it was my job to prove the U.S. beliefs wrong. It wasn't very long before the French decided it was a good battle to wage. And, as they began to take faith in themselves, they began to want to really compete, and so we did. We worked harder and longer. We worked Saturdays and evenings and some Sundays, and we did well. We turned the company around and accomplished things we never thought we would achieve. I felt very good about it.

As I was wrapping up my three-year tour and preparing to come home, I had a lunch with each of the people who reported to me to say how much I had appreciated being with them and how much I had learned. One of the things I had learned was that it was a good thing to take a month's vacation. In the U.S. I hardly took a week. But over the three years I came to prize my month's vacation, the fact that I had paternal leaves as a father, and about fifteen holidays, and all kinds of other reasons not to come to work. And before long I looked just like the average European.

But, as we had this lunch, one of my best and most remarkable French managers said, "Well, I'm glad you learned all those things from us, but I have learned something from you. I have learned how wonderful it is to work long and hard, and the results that come from it." And I sat there and thought, "My god, what have I done! What have I taught this person?"

I still don't know the answer. Because we did well, we employed more people. The company was able to pay highly competitive wages, people had new and revitalized careers. There were opportunities now present that had not been present before. But was that worth the extra time and extra hours? I don't know.


Charles M. Denny, retired CEO and chairman of ADC Telecommunications, worked for Honeywell 1959-1970.

Are You Addicted to Work? (Side Bar)

Diane Fassel, an author and organizational consultant specializing in work addiction, has described the behaviors of work addiction in three stages:

Early stage

  • Rushing, busyness, caring, and rescuing behavior.
  • The inability to say "no."
  • Constantly thinking of work.
  • Compulsive list-making.
  • An exaggerated belief in one's abilities.

Middle Stage

  • Days off become non-existent.
  • Consistently working more than forty hours a week.
  • An increasing tendency toward other addictions, such as food and alcohol
  • Giving up relationships and relationship obligations.
  • Attempts to change fail.
  • Physical exhaustion.

Late Stage

  • Periods of comatose staring into space.
  • Blackouts at work or on the road.
  • Chronic headaches, backaches, high blood pressure, ulcers, and depression.
  • Stroke, serious illness, hospitalization, emotional deadness, moral and spiritual bankruptcy, and death.
Meaning of Life 101 (Side Bar)

Between 1967 and 1990, thc number of Americans entering college who thought that it was essential to be "very well off financially" rose from 44 percent to 74 percent, according to a study by Eileen M. Crimmins and Richard A. Easterlin. Those who believed it was essental to develop "a meaningful philosophy of life" dropped from 83 percent to 43 percent.


Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics
 University of St. Thomas College of Business

1000 LaSalle Avenue TMH 331
Minneapolis, MN 55403-2001
Phone: 651/962-4211
Fax: 651/962-4208

2001 University of St. Thomas Chair in Business Ethics


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