Overcoming Overload From Overwork: An Overview

by King, Dan Wednesday, July 11, 2007
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As a student...some time ago, I can remember predictions by respected scholars and forward thinkers that advances in industrial automation and labor-saving technology would supplant the need for a 40-hour work week by the turn of the century.

Leisure studies programs blossomed on campus, as leading-edge learners geared up to help a generation plan and manage their newfound lives of leisure. This impending crisis for American society, we were warned, would threaten the fabric of personal and family life in the 21st century as workers, forced into working just 30-hours a week, would struggle with the stress of having too much time on their hands.

Come again? Too much time?

Hey guys, thanks for the "heads-up," but in case you hadn't noticed, the 21st century is here. Most of us are working 60-hour weeks -- and the rest are unemployed! Talk about threatening the fabric of personal and family life!

We have become a nation of workaholics, working on average, nine weeks more per year than any other modern industrial nation in the world. According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, the average American worker has added 199 hours to his/her annual schedule since 1973. That's the equivalent of five additional weeks of work per year, assuming a 40-hour workweek.

But who really works just 40 hours anymore?

I frequently hear from clients that they work upwards of 60 hours per week -- and that's not counting the work they take home to do on the weekends. Author Joe Robinson, (on the Web at www.worktolive.info), writes, "the line between work and home has become so blurred that the only way you can tell them apart is that one has a bed."

As companies' reorganize, restructure and reengineer, employees are taking on more and more responsibility. In order to maximize profits, some companies have been laying off employees and then overworking those that remain. Coupled with warp speed advances in technology, many of us are processing information at a rate beyond what our bodies and minds can endure.

Meanwhile, the personal services industry is exploding. We’re paying others -- personal organizers, personal chefs, personal trainers, personal shoppers, personal coaches -- to help us effectively manage our frazzled personal lives.

A national movement is under way to reclaim our time. Last year, documentary television producer, John de Graaf, staged the first annual "Take Back Your Time Day," (www.timeday.org), to raise consciousness of the fact that we now work nine weeks more per year than do our peers in Western Europe. Plus they get five to six weeks of vacation a year. According to de Graaf, 26 percent of Americans got no vacation at all last year.

Call me crazy, but doesn't it make more sense for well-paid but overworked employees to just say no to the long hours, give up some extra pay, and demand that their work be shared with those that don't have jobs? If you had the choice of a 10-percent pay increase or four additional weeks of vacation, which would you choose?

Many of us would gladly forego a pay raise in return for more free time. But it's easier to get extra time off for doing your job poorly than it is for doing your job well. In most organizations today, a suspension is more readily attainable than a sabbatical!

It's time to take a stand. If you want more balance between your personal life, your family life and your work life, you can't just dream about it -- you need to commit to it. Here are a few suggestions:

Purge Your Workday. Keep a detailed record of what you do for two weeks. Then identify areas for freeing up time by cutting things out. Ask yourself: what's the worst that will happen if I stop doing this? Then ask: what's the best that can happen if I stop doing this. Let your answers guide your actions accordingly, but keep them to yourself. It’s your time, but that won't stop people from looking for ways to fill it.

Plan Your Escape. If your work life feels like a life sentence, then break out. Investigate companies and careers that are more congruent with your preferred lifestyle. Check the "Best Companies" lists at www.workingmother.com or www.fortune.com to identify organizations that promote family-friendly policies. Or look for companies that offer project-oriented work, like research, writing, programming and training. Also consider possibilities for self-employment, where you can be your own best company.

Get a Bigger Bang for Your Buck. Establish a money-to-time ratio. See a financial planner to help you determine how much money you actually need to support the lifestyle you want. Calculate the best investment of time for the dollar. At face value, a $100k job looks better than a $60k job, but not if you're putting in a 70-hour week.

Park Your Car. A 45-minute commute equals 7-1/2 hours a week, the equivalent of 45-50 additional days of work per year! Regain your time by reducing your commute. Explore possibilities for working from home a day or two a week, move closer to work or find another job near your home.

Redistribute Your Work. Encourage work sharing instead of layoffs at your firm. Propose a job-share or flextime arrangement. Advocate for a four-day workweek. If you find yourself on a roll, inquire about sabbaticals. It can happen. Belgium’s Career Break program allows employees to take a one-year leave and work a four-day week for up to five years, while being paid!

Deal With It. Look for more effective ways to cope with things as they are. Take a daily recess. Get away from your workspace. Turn off your cell phone and pager -- and turn on your imagination and creativity. Take a long walk, practice meditation, visit a museum, read the sports page, listen to music, feed the pigeons, whatever ... just do it!

You probably have some time saving ideas of your own. If so, I'd love to hear from you.

Twenty-first century America is in the grip of some very destructive beliefs about work. Throughout history, people have usually dreamed of working less, not more. But we've opted to take our productivity gains in the form of more money, not in the form of more time.

For the sake of getting a living, we've forgotten to live. Is that the American Dream? We need to reclaim our lives, our health, our families and our sanity-- while there's still time.