Americans stressed by too much work

May 26, 1992|By Mark St. John Erickson | Mark St. John Erickson,Newport News Daily Press

Best-selling author Juliet Schor answers the phone as if the scheduled call had come from some distant, nearly forgotten planet.

"Could you give me just three more minutes?" she asks, her distracted voice mixing with the wailing sound of an unhappy infant.

"I'm just trying to put some medicine on my baby."

Five minutes later, the little boy's cries have only partially subsided. But the Harvard economics scholar is ready to talk about the arguments that have become the talk of the boardroom as well as the factory floor.

Her forceful observations about the plight of worn-out, overworked Americans seem even more persuasive when heard above the noise of her baby's constant, complaining murmur.

"Compared to 20 years ago, the average American worker now spends an additional month in the workplace every year," she says, "and we're feeling the effect of that lost time across the board.

"It's happening with men, and it's happening with women -- and it cuts across all income categories. Working women are feeling the biggest time squeeze because of their jobs at home."

Ms. Schor's book, "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure," ($21, 336 pages hardcover, BasicBooks) hit the bookstore shelves late last year at just about the same time Japanese officials began taking pot shots at the allegedly poor performance of the American worker. The book drew attention almost immediately because of its startling premise: Americans need to work less, not more.

Despite its heady mix of economic theories, productivity surveys and behavioral analyses, the book tapped a deep well of public concern about the increasing level of stress found in the nation's workplace. That response placed the volume on the New York Times' non-fiction best seller list for most of the last two months.

According to Ms. Schor's estimates, the average American worker today toils about 163 hours more each year than his or her counterpart did back in 1969. And that leaves less and less time for leisure as well as the demands of the household.

What results, she says, are families in which children spend fewer and fewer hours interacting with their parents, leading to a serious decline in the quality of the upbringing they get at home. fTC Parents themselves have less time to give to their spouses, placing an additional burden on marriages that may already be facing considerable strain.

Stress-related illnesses are on the rise, too, she says, because of the pressure faced by workers trying to juggle the growing demands of their jobs with their responsibilities at home.

"In the 1950s and '60s, the average family had two people working two jobs -- one at home and one in the marketplace," she says.

"Now, you have two people trying to do three jobs. Both parents work, but their responsibilities at home haven't changed."

Ms. Schor blames both the prevailing corporate culture and economic necessity for this unanticipated shift in the nation's annual work load. Employers in general, she says, resist reducing hours because they think it will cost them more money for the same amount of work.

Fringe benefits may be the stickiest part of the issue. Most business leaders, Ms. Schor says, fear fewer individual hours will mean hiring more workers in order to keep up with production. That, in turn, will add the cost of more vacations, medical insurance and sick pay to their overall labor bill.

"Employers prefer longer hours because it helps them avoid paying for those kinds of benefits," she says.

The national fall in real wages since the early 1970s also has contributed to the current dilemma. Most American families must work longer and harder than ever just to keep their standard of living from sliding back.

The effects of that increase in labor, however, are not restricted to the employee's home and family life. Sooner or later, Ms. Schor argues, the added burden begins to show up in the workplace, too.

"Of course, it's costly for business," she says. "It's shortsighted for employers to think that increasing hours is the solution to being more competitive. People are just working too hard to be productive."

Ms. Schor argues that cutting back hours can solve problems for both the employer and the worker. Among the cases she cites is the example of the Kellogg Co., which switched to a six-hour day in 1930 in order to avoid layoffs during the Great Depression.

Managers there expected productivity to drop drastically after the cuts, but it rose by almost 4 percent instead. The workers were pleased, too, preferring the quicker pace and the shorter hours.

Contemporary examples include the case of Minneapolis' Medtronic Co., which saw output increase after the work week was shortened. On balance, Ms. Schor says, the company saved money by cutting back hours. Absenteeism and error rates declined, too.

The same kind of gains also occurred nationally when the work day was reduced to 10 hours in the mid-19th century and to eight hours after World War I. In the international arena, many countries continue to enjoy high levels of productivity despite giving their residents more days off.

French union workers, for example, get five weeks of paid vacation every year. Yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they rank second in productivity only to the United States, where industrial workers average about 320 more hours on the job each year.

Only the Japanese, in fact, work more than Americans, putting in six more weeks of toil annually than their Western counterparts.

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