Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Time to Go Home

Long Hours Put the Squeeze on Workers and Their Families

By Miriam Schulman

A photograph in the morning paper shows a group of grown-ups coasting down a yellow spiral slide. Are they taking turns with their toddlers at the park? No, they are enjoying the office of the '90s — complete with amusements like slides to speed them from one floor of the building to another. Silicon Valley lawyers report that their offices supply them with catered dinners, and engineers' workplaces come complete with cots for their cubicles.

Although these amenities are always presented as perks, they raise a question: Don't these people want to go home?

Of course they do — but not without their cellular phones, fax machines, and modems just in case they have a free moment that might be filled with business. As one CEO told Juliet B. Schor, author of The Overworked American, "People who work for me should have phones in their bathrooms."

No doubt, there are workaholics for whom such a driven atmosphere is paradise, but many Americans are beginning to resent the encroachment of work into every moment of their waking (and sometimes sleeping) lives.

The 50- or 60-hour workweek has begun to raise ethical questions: Are employers respecting the contractual arrangements they make with their employees? Are employees placing too much value on work and the material things work makes possible? What impact do such long workweeks have on families and, through them, on the common good?

The Overworked American
Before addressing these questions, it might be well to establish the dimensions of the problem. Schor begins her book with this sobering sentence: "In the last 20 years, the amount of time Americans have spent at their jobs has risen steadily." According to her calculations, the average worker is now on the job about one month longer per year than his or her 1969 counterpart.

There are researchers who disagree--John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey of the University of Maryland report that the average American gained five hours a week in free time between 1965 and 1985 — but, at the least, a lot of Americans are feeling overextended. In a 1996 survey by the International Survey Research Corp., 42 percent of employees reported that their workload was excessive.

The impetus behind much of this strain is quite simple: The average 40 hour-a-week job no longer provides sufficient income for many families. Schor calculates that "just to reach their 1973 standard of living [production and nonsupervisory employees] must work 245 more hours, or six-plus extra weeks a year."

Another factor behind extra hours is downsizing, which has created both a surplus of work to do and an insecurity that makes employees feel they have to do it or lose their jobs. A middle-level manager told Business Week magazine:

This year, I had to downsize my area by 25 percent. Nothing has changed in terms of the workload. It's very emotionally draining. I find myself not wanting to go in to work because I'm going to have to push people to do more, and I look in their eyes and they're sinking into the back of their heads.... But they're not going to complain because they don't want to be the next 25 percent.

The Squeeze
The ethical uneasiness in this manager's comments is palpable. Unless a worker has been slacking, there is something morally questionable about asking him or her to do more work for the same remuneration.

Some employees are legally protected from such pressures--for example, by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which makes unpaid overtime illegal for hourly workers. In 1993, settling a suit with employees, Food Lion grocery chain agreed to pay $16.2 million in back wages to an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees who had been pressured to work "off the clock"--that is, extra hours they did not report. "They were impelled, they claimed, because the company set unrealistic productivity goals and dealt harshly with employees who did not meet their targets," David M. Gordon writes in Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial "Downsizing."

Salaried workers are also trying to find legal means to hold employers to their contracts. Last year, more than 150 Wal-Mart pharmacists brought suit against the store, alleging their categorization as salaried employees allowed the company to squeeze overtime from them without more compensation.

But, with or without legal backing, people who have entered into a contract have a right to what they have been promised--including their agreed-upon schedule. Breeches of this right violate a fundamental notion of human dignity based on people's ability to choose how they want to be treated.

Sometimes, the breeches are more a function of insensitivity than of conscious exploitation. As management at many organizations becomes more horizontal, workers may be involved in several different projects at once. The lack of a central authority can mean no one knows how much any particular person is being asked to do, according to Santa Clara University Professor of Finance Hersh Shefrin.

Using the University as an example, Shefrin explains, "Administrators always want the best people to serve on their committees, so there's a tendency to go back to the same people to get things done."

Problem Spillover
Whatever the motivation for overwork, eventually, Shefrin cautions, "something does give. It's not like people will get more efficient if we keep piling jobs on them. [The overextension] shows up in different places: It might show up in teaching or level of scholarship or the quality of the other service they do."

Alexander Trotman, chair of Ford Motor Co., has the same worry. Though Ford workers do significant overtime, Trotman told Time magazine, "You don't get real productivity by simply ramping up the line speed.... In the beginning, everyone enjoys the extra pay; but we all get tired, pressures build up, people get edgy, and tensions break out."

These tensions affect more than the individual worker and the work environment. They also come home. A 1992 study by the Families and Work Institute found that job-to-home problem spillover was three times as troubling to respondents as home-to-job problem spillover. "It appears that family members and friends must endure the stresses and problems that arise from work as well as from personal/family life," the institute report concluded.

Dennis Moberg, SCU professor of management, relates the phenomenon to the Soccer Mom, made famous in the last election. "I see the Soccer Mom as someone who is totally harried, someone who is having a difficult time keeping all the balls in the air at the same time. She may be holding down a part-time job, volunteering at school, getting the kids off to practice and day care. Then, on top of that, she is trying to compensate for an overworked spouse. SheÕs sort of the residual in the equation; she has to pick up the messes of others who are working too hard."

If the Soccer Moms are stressed, imagine the strain on mothers who work full time. For these women, the disappearance of free time can be especially acute because mothers usually are responsible for the lion's share of the work at home. Schor calculates men are doing more domestic chores than they used to--up 68 hours a year since 1969--but their total 689 hours still hardly compare to the average 1,123 hours put in by women.

The result is often a family gasping for breath. Manuel Velasquez, Dirksen Professor of Business Ethics at SCU, puts it simply: "A major pressure is that now, in order to support a family, both parents have to work."

Job Stress Equals Family Stress
Parents' long hours at work have been blamed for family breakdown and its attendant ills. Gordon argues that, while America's social problems have been laid at the feet of lazy workers, ungrateful immigrants, and welfare chiselers, falling wages and other employment issues such as overwork play a more important role.

Though he is writing about the general nature of employment, Gordon's comments may also apply to the more specific issue of overwork: "In seeking to understand the stresses and strains on Americans' lives and communities, rather than spending so much time blaming deviants or moral pestilents, we should focus much more clearly on the character of employment in the United States."

Tibor Scitovsky, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University, believes we can cure many social evils by addressing overwork. Besides solving the unemployment problem (people without jobs would be hired to work the extra hours), Scitovsky believes that shortening the workweek would shore up the family. In an article for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, he writes:

More time away from work would help make family ties stronger, reduce divorce rates, and increase quality parenting. The number of latchkey children would fall, thereby improving school performance and stemming the school dropout rate that makes so many of our youth today turn to drugs and crime because they are unemployable.

Even if Scitovsky is stretching a point, few people would argue that more leisure would be bad for families.

Reining in the Excess
Velasquez thinks many companies are beginning to address overwork, not because they are public-spirited but because it makes sound business sense to do so. "A lot of forward-thinking companies recognize the problem," he says. "In an effort to get the highest quality labor force, they make sure that company policies are designed to lay as little stress as possible on families. Such practices can be a recruiting tool."

Some companies, for example, rotate overtime so no worker gets stuck continually with extra hours. Others may try to integrate the family into the business, by providing services such as on-site child care.

Susan Seaburg, Americas field development manager for Hewlett-Packard, says her company has made work-life balance a major priority, reviewed quarterly in the same manner as other business objectives.

Organizations like H-P have moved toward greater scheduling flexibility to relieve some of the pressures of long hours. "My own workday doesn't look anything like it did three years ago," Seaburg says. While she used to show up at the office at 8 or 8:30 a.m. and stay at her desk eight to 10 hours, she now drops her daughter off at school and goes home, where she handles her voice mail--a task that can take as long as two hours.

Seaburg acknowledges that being able to take her job home can be a double-edged sword: "The good news is that now you can work anywhere, and the bad news is that now you can work anywhere," is the way she puts it. But she finds the greater flexibility has made her job less stressful.

Another H-P effort has been to reduce company encroachment on weekend time. For example, the company used to schedule regional meetings for 8 a.m. Monday. "It virtually required you to travel on Sunday," Seaburg remembers. And if an employee complained, he or she was "viewed as not being a team player."

Now, major regional meetings usually start at 4 p.m. Monday, and those who still have to travel during the weekend are encouraged to take comp time for the hours they spend away from their families.

Just Say No
Seaburg also recommends workers use the time off they're entitled to. "People in Silicon Valley have a tendency not to take vacation," she observes, adding that time away is as important for managers as it is for line workers. "If you as manager want to see folks lead a balanced life," she says, "you have a responsibility to model it."

Instead of the "power vacation"--an expensive long weekend in some pleasure spot--Seaburg thinks workers need at least two or three consecutive weeks to clear their heads. And she takes her own advice, having recently returned from a five-week tour of U.S. national parks with her family.

According to Moberg, some companies are expanding the old time-off categories, developing leave banks where workers have certain modules of time set aside for their use. No longer do workers at these companies have to specify whether they are taking sick, personal, or vacation days; how they use their time off is at their own discretion.

Finally, there's the just-say-no approach to overwork. For many workers, resisting overtime their employer requests may not be an option because, as Velasquez points out, "usually the power is on the side of the company."

But Seaburg believes many employees can control the hours they work. "I don't think most managers can complete their work in 40 hours, but then thereÕs the question: Do I work 50 or 60 or 80 hours? ThatÕs where I think you have to take control over it."

Because managers and professionals often work on open-ended projects, there's always something more they can do, Seaburg allows. But, "as new projects come up, you have to go to the folks who expect you to do them and say, 'Which of the following things do you want me to take off my plate in order for this new thing to get done?' It requires you to become really good at setting priorities."

Those priorities, according to Schor, should include leisure. She suggests many people forget this value because they are trapped in a work-and spend cycle, where they slave to buy material possessions they donÕt really need.

"Things," she writes, "fill up empty spaces in our lives. [For example], many couples concentrate on owning a house or filling it with nice furnishings, when what they really crave is an emotional construction--home."

Schor counsels reflection on whether the objects we buy are worth the disappearance of leisure time. She writes, "To impair the quality of life in the name of economic success is foolhardy."

Further Reading

Gordon, David M. Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial ÒDownsizing.Ó New York: Free Press, 1996.

Robinson, John P. and Bostrom, Ann. ÒThe Overestimated Workweek? What Time Diary Measures Suggest.Ó Monthly Labor Review 117.8 (August 1994).

Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Scitovsky, Tibor. ÒMore Workers + Fewer Hours = Higher Productivity.Ó New Perspectives Quarterly 13.2 (Spring 1996).