STAKEHOLDER DIALOG 1994
Caught in the Cycle of Overwork
Why is the idea of working less
such a heresy to Americans?
BY SALLY POWER
Published first in Business
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 workersthose 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
(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
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
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
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
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.
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
weekto 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.
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.
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.
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
Charles M. Denny, retired CEO and chairman of ADC
Telecommunications, worked for Honeywell 1959-1970.
Diane Fassel, an author and organizational consultant
specializing in work addiction, has described the behaviors of
work addiction in three stages:
- 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.
- Days off become non-existent.
- Consistently working more than forty hours a
- An increasing tendency toward other addictions,
such as food and alcohol
- Giving up relationships and relationship
- Attempts to change fail.
- Physical exhaustion.
- 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.
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