Several of my coaching clients are trying to find a solution to the same challenge—they work so many hours a week that they have no time for relationships, friends, exercise, relaxation, or children. These clients are men and women in large corporations, academia, small businesses, and large and small nonprofits. Their stress levels are high, their sleep quality is poor, or their hours of sleep too few. They often love their work—but they are not happy with their lives. Does this sound familiar? Robin Ely of Harvard University and her colleagues Irene Padavic and Erin Reid of Florida State University and Boston University recently reported the results of a new study they conducted for a large consulting company. The company asked them to conduct the study to determine what they needed to do to retain, and increase promotions of, women. The researchers concluded that the problem is not a lack of family-friendly policies—it is a surge in the number of hours worked by both women and men. Ely explained, “The culture of overwork affects everybody.” Here are some startling facts about the current situation when it comes to work hours:
- The number of hours worked has increased by 5 percent for high-wage earners over the last four decades.
- The typical professional employee works 60–65 hours per week, although in some sectors, like finance, employees are expected to work 80–100 hours per week.
- Long hours have become a status symbol in high-wage sectors.
- A combination of globalization and technology has created the expectation of 24/7 availability for work.
- In addition to creating an expectation of 24/7 availability, the use of technology can become an addiction that does not allow for a balanced life.
- The number of hours worked by low-wage workers has increased by 20 percent over the past four decades
- Low wages that have not increased as the cost of living has gone up (and, consequently, are not living wages) combined with unpredictable work schedules mean high stress for workers who have to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Study FindingsIn their study, Ely, Padavic, and Reid found that men and women at the large consulting firm were equally unhappy about long work hours. But, interestingly, the women and men dealt with the pressure of long hours differently, with different consequences:
- Women took advantage of flex-time or part-time policies, and stalled their careers.
- Men suffered silently and complied with the expectations of long work hours, or they worked the schedule they wanted, without asking permission, with no career consequences. (This same strategy did not work for the women who tried it, however.)
- Men are expected to be devoted to work, and it is assumed they are working even when they are not in the office.
- Women are expected to be devoted to family, and it is assumed they are not working when they are not in the office—even when they are.
What You Can DoHere are some steps you can take to fight the trend toward long work hours:
- If you are a team leader, you may be able to create a team culture where people agree to rotate coverage for nights and weekends to give each other dedicated family or relaxation time when there is a need for someone to be on call.
- You may be able to change the expectation that you are available 24/7 by announcing that you are not available outside the office, at least on some nights and weekends—or during vacations. If you are the boss, you can be a role model by not sending e-mails during off-hours.
- You may be able to get your boss to prioritize your work and eliminate low-priority projects or reassign them to create a more manageable workload.
- If a lot of your work requires travel for meetings, you may be able to use technology for meetings instead.
- Working for a smaller organization may allow you more control over your work life. Some small law firms, medical practices, and nonprofits are committed to real work-life balance. The pay may be less, but the tradeoff may be worth it.
- Join with others to put pressure on organizations, and governments, to pay a living wage for low-wage workers.