Job satisfaction sinks under stress of today's workplace

February 20, 1995|By Bonnie Miller Rubin | Bonnie Miller Rubin,Chicago Tribune

Basketball player Michael Jordan quit the Chicago Bulls at his peak because the thrill was gone. Gary Larson, "The Far Side" cartoonist, just retired at 44 because he feared his work would slide into mediocrity. Anna Quindlen, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of the New York Times, recently stepped off the fast track to write novels and stay home with her kids. Harvard University president Neil Rudenstine is on leave because he's "worn to a frazzle."

What's going on here? If those with some of the most glamorous jobs in America are dissatisfied -- people who get six-figure salaries, limousines and thunderous ovations -- what about the rest of us? How are we supposed to charge up the hill and capture the prize for the company?

We can't. We won't. We're tired.

An unmistakable job malaise has settled over the country like a fog, researchers say, and one need look no farther than the next cubicle to know that they are right.

With baby boomers getting older, organizations getting flatter and the contract between employer and employee -- the one that said if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you would be taken care of -- virtually dead, driving yourself hardly seems worth it anymore.

"The signs are everywhere; people are at the end of the line in what they're willing to give up in their humanity," says Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and author of "The End of Work," a provocative new book that examines the changing workplace. "The mental fatigue today is every bit as significant as the physical fatigue of the early Industrial Revolution."

Indeed, in numerous surveys, stress is identified as the nation's No. 1 health issue. What is significant is not the exhaustion but that it has gripped one of the most educated, driven and overachieving generations in history. Everywhere you go, the talk is about slowing things down; about sabbaticals and resigning partnerships and scaling back to part-time status.

BWe're in the midst of a seismic psychological shift about defining success, according to Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist and director of the Delta Consulting Group in New York, which advises senior executives of Fortune 500 firms.

"There is a realization that there is more to life than where I am on the organizational chart," says Mr. Marks, author of "From Turmoil to Triumph," a book on dealing with downsizing. "People see a workplace with scant advancement opportunities, limited pay increases and fewer resources to get the job done. It prompts them to ask, 'What's the payoff for working so hard?' "

The voracious demands of the workplace show no signs of abating, however. Primarily because of downsizing, the amount of time spent on the job has grown by 158 hours a year -- nearly a whole month -- over the past two decades, according to Juliet Schor, Harvard economist and author of "The Overworked American." And the amount of paid vacation and sick leave has declined by almost four days.

In every previous period of history, increases in technology have resulted in a steady reduction in the number of hours worked. The opposite has occurred since the birth of the computer revolution, which made it possible for fewer people to do more work. "If current trends continue," Mr. Rifkin says, "by the end of the century Americans will be spending as much time at their jobs as they did back in the 1920s."

That doesn't even take into account commuting hours.

The Japanese even have a word for it: "karoshi." It literally means dropping dead at your desk.

At the same time, we've been all but overwhelmed by responsibilities at home. Sixty percent of women are back in the work force before their babies are 1 year old. Fewer fathers fit "The Organization Man" profile of the 1950s, since they, too, must be available to stay home when day-care arrangements go haywire.

A new relationship

Baby boomers have seen the casualties and know it can happen to them. According to the Families and Work Institute study, 42 percent of the 3,718 respondents have experienced downsizing, and 1 in 5 fear they will be fired.

Robin Hardman of the Families and Work Institute sums up the new worker-employer contract this way: We won't promise you lifetime employment and, in exchange we won't hold you so strictly to the old rules. It has enabled employees to take advantage of family-friendly policies -- such as job-sharing, part-time status and flex time -- which used to carry heavy career consequences.

This shift has not been brought about by any moral imperative but rather the need for a work force that can expand and contract and reshape itself as economic conditions demand. Today's workplace has more temporary workers, part-time workers, even the beginnings of what is called task employment. Several corporations even offer one or two years of employment, and then you're out.

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