DO you ever mutter under your breath at a dry cleaner with the temerity to open as late as 7 a.m.? Have you snapped at a neighbor who asks if you plan to attend the 7:30 p.m. town council meeting? Does your child have trouble remembering which country you are in this week?
If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, chances are you have been working the long hours that are increasingly common for many salaried employees.
Officially, the average workweek has changed little in the last two decades. But those figures mask a shift in who works the most. In 1983, the lowest-paid workers were more likely to work long hours, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But by 2002, the most highly paid workers were twice as likely to work long hours as the lowest paid.
After my last column, on obesity as a workplace issue, my inbox was full of messages describing long days of sedentary work — along with lunches gulped down in the office, frequent travel and BlackBerrys that never seem to quit.
Is all this work a bad thing?
Truth be told, as a society we have been ambivalent about work hours as long as — well, as long as we have been a society. There have been demands for shorter work hours since the late 18th century, when it was not uncommon to spend 70 or more hours each week performing some kind of manual labor. In 1791, for example, Philadelphia carpenters went on strike, demanding a 10-hour workday. And in the 1840s, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for a 10-hour workday for mill workers. (Both efforts failed.)
But our Puritan work ethic has been part of our culture for just as long. Some employees are drawn to challenging, demanding work and the outsize financial rewards that can follow. A survey of highly paid American workers published in 2006 by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 21 percent of them — mostly men, it should be noted — said they worked at least 60 hours a week under highly stressful conditions. Two-thirds of those respondents said they loved their work.
“Americans do seem to want to work longer, and you ask them, ‘Do you like your job?’ and we like our jobs more than other people do,” said Robert Whaples, a professor of economics at Wake Forest University who has studied work hours.
Professor Whaples theorized that when most people were working 12 hours a day or more, obtaining any amount of leisure time was more of a priority. But the general reduction in work hours has helped ease the need for downtime for at least some workers.
Alternatively, he said, “Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves this is what we should be doing” in a world of conspicuous consumption.
Still, long days at work take a serious toll. For starters, it is very hard for employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle when work and commuting consume 60 or more hours a week. It is probably not a coincidence that obesity has become more prevalent as work hours have expanded for some.
Too many hours at the office can also wind up being counterproductive. Employees who are overtired or preoccupied with neglected personal issues are unlikely to perform at their peak. They fall behind, spend more unproductive time at work to catch up, and so on.
It is in managers’ interests to help employees find ways to get more done in less time, and some are trying.
Sprint Nextel, for example, offers its employees time-saving services like the ability to fill prescriptions at work and help with travel planning, said Collier Case, Sprint’s director of health and productivity. There are also incentives to stay active at work: the headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., has covered pathways between buildings, and stairwells are designed to be inviting. (Also, some elevators operate at deliberately slow speeds.)
Other companies are addressing the problems of long hours head on. About a year ago, the financial services asset management group at Ernst & Young began trying to cope better with its busy season, roughly February to May, when long stretches of 11- and 12-hour days and weekend work are the norm. Arthur Tully, the partner in charge of the group, went to his manager, who offered to pay for consultants who could help change the group’s work style.
The consultants emphasized the inefficiency of multitasking (nothing gets done very well); the need for adequate sleep, exercise and a healthy diet; and the importance of scheduling time for restorative personal priorities.
Things changed. Free fruit was supplied twice daily, and bagels and cream cheese were replaced with granola and fruit. Employees were also urged to limit weekend work to one day when feasible, and get home to their families on Friday nights.
“There’s a view that the longer you work, the better you are,” Mr. Tully said. “But that’s not true at all.”
It was the group’s busiest season ever, Mr. Tully said, but employees’ hours declined over all. He does not yet know what effect the program had on turnover, but at least one part of it has been made permanent. The fruit deliveries ended after the busy season, and employees objected immediately. The fruit, Mr. Tully said, is back.