PHILADELPHIA -- Penny Reuss remembers vividly the weekend corporate America finally pushed her too far.
She worked in her office at Unisys Corp. until 9 p.m. Friday, went home and grabbed supper, worked through the night, slept from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., worked all day Saturday, worked all day Sunday.
Monday morning she handed in three projects.
Wednesday morning she handed in her resignation.
"There was so much pressure and so many projects," says Ms. Reuss, who until a year ago was director of product management for Unisys' U.S. Information Systems group.
"They kept cutting the staff and cutting the staff, but [their] functions did not go away. . . . I had a super dynamic team, but you can only push them so far."
Three weeks later she founded I/O International, a marketing consulting firm in suburban Bala-Cynwyd.
"I loved what I was doing, but . . . the pressures were not going to ease up," she says.
Too much work, too much pressure, too much worry about things going wrong, Ms. Reuss' litany is one that has become almost endemic among American workers.
Doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers have always been known for their super-stressed work paces. But it's only been in recent years that employers have begun to expect more and more from their workers as pared work forces became a major weapon in fighting rising health care costs, foreign competitors and a persistent recession.
Burnout from overwork is "the disease of the '90s," says Marilyn Moats Kennedy, managing partner of Career Strategies, a career consulting firm in Wilmette, Ill.
Every day, she says, new clients arrive in her office, exhausted, saying, "I've given everything I've got, there's nothing left."
"I want to go in on weekends to catch up, but I just can't get out of bed. My body won't let me," says a hotel worker who tries to cram two jobs into a single workday: her own cash-management duties and the accounts-payable job given to her when a colleague was laid off.
In industries from banking to defense, from hotels to high tech, many of those lucky enough to hang on to their jobs are wearing themselves out trying to fill in for missing workers.
"I am seeing [people working] 60- , 70- , 80-hour weeks. I haven't seen 40-hour weeks in a long time," says Eileen Javers, a career consultant with Options Inc. in Philadelphia.
The strain is hitting up and down the line, from top executives to supermarket clerks and bank tellers.
Corporate announcements of staff cuts usually describe the goal as a "lean, mean" organization in which redundancy has been abolished and efficiency improved.
In practice, however, cuts in the work force are rarely matched by cuts in the amount of work to be done, say management experts.
"The people go away, but the work doesn't. Those who still have jobs have more to do than ever before," says Stephen Moss, vice president of Rath & Strong, a management consulting firm in Lexington, Mass., that has developed a system for helping companies reduce workloads.
That's because staff cuts are not usually systematically planned but are ordered as an emergency fix for financial crisis, he says.
The hotel cash manager/accounts payable manager, for example, finds she simply can't cram both jobs into a single workday. That makes her job a pressure-cooked mix of trying to do one job in the morning and the other in the afternoon, letting things slide, living in the shadow of looming deadlines, and bolting lunch in 20 minutes and feeling that she's falling further and further behind.
And things do fall through the cracks. She doesn't have time to reassure suppliers who haven't been paid, and it was three weeks before she discovered the bank had double-charged for a batch of checks.
The pressure continues at home. "I dream about bugs," she says. "And last night I thought I heard somebody screaming for help, but there wasn't any sound when I woke up, so it was obviously in my dream."
She, and most others, requested that neither their names nor their employers' names be used, fearing they could lose their jobs if comments were traced to them.
At a local Fortune 50 company, the strain is so great "the big joke is whether it's better to stay or to be laid off," says a computer systems administrator who routinely works 12-hour days.
Frequently, supervisors are so driven themselves that instead of showing appreciation for extra effort, they just ask for more. The Fortune 50 employee recalls her supervisor asking at the end of a 10-hour day: "Leaving early?"
But because jobs are scarce nowadays, most workers suffer in silence.
Employers "know that it's difficult for you to say, 'The hell with you,' and get another job. They know you're stuck and they take advantage of that," says a computer systems analyst who did recently change jobs.
In many cases, employers who realize workers are stretched can't even schedule stress-management workshops -- because "no one has the time," says Dorothy Harrison, vice president of Acorn Behavioral Health Care Management Corp. in Narberth, Pa., which runs employee-assistance programs for 150 companies.