Why It’s Crucial That We Do Away with American Workaholic Culture

An Internet search for the phrase “work-life balance” turns up around 889,000,000 results on the subject. As a result, many of us may think it’s a more complicated issue than it really is. There are several criteria by which we might judge the excellence of a nation, but its willingness to prioritize the happiness of its citizens over its economic output should probably be on that list.

The intrusion of our work responsibilities into our personal lives runs the gamut from mildly annoying — checking work emails on the weekends or receiving calls from our bosses after hours — to objectively cruel, including the lack of protections for workers putting in overtime. The Trump administration is lowering, rather than raising or removing, the cutoff for overtime pay eligibility.

Ranked alongside workers of other developed countries, Americans are demonstrably overworked. Nobody’s saying we shouldn’t have to work for the things we want and some of the things we need — but America’s fetishization of “the grind” is taking a toll on our mental health, productivity, and lifespans.

How Hard Do Americans Work, Exactly?

The primary reasons for pursuing technological development is to make our lives easier, utilize our resources more efficiently and raise the standard of living from one generation to the next. The question is: Are Americans using technology wisely? Are we learning to ease our burdens over time, or do they only seem to be growing heavier?

Today, almost three-quarters of our children are growing up in households where both parents work. Additionally, the U.S. is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid time off for illness or parental leave. In Europe, the average amount of parental leave is 20 weeks. Everywhere else in the civilized world, the average stands at 12 weeks. Americans get nothing guaranteed.

Americans are also guaranteed neither paid vacation leave nor paid holidays. Sweden, Denmark, and Finland guarantee 25 days of paid vacation annually. Austria guarantees those 25 days plus another 13 for paid holidays.

As a result of these gaps in our social contract, Americans are working:

  • 137 more hours annually than workers in Japan
  • 260 more hours annually than workers in the United Kingdom
  • 499 more hours annually than workers in France

Americans find themselves whisked away from their newborn children to get back to the workplace. They are sometimes denied the basic dignity of paid time off for illness. They are not even guaranteed an upper limit to the number of hours they must work in a given week — a right that more than 100 other countries have recognized.

What of the 40-hour workweek?

In America, more than 85 percent of male employees and more than 66 percent of female employees clock more than 40 hours every week.

How did we get to the point where the five-day, nine-to-five routine came to feel like a quaint and distant memory?

How Workaholic Culture Compromises Our Health

Would reducing our workdays and hours have a significant impact on our collective productive output?

Research out of Sweden says no. Employees in nursing homes could work six-hour days at their current eight-hour salaries and become more, not less, productive. They would also enjoy lower stress levels and use fewer sick days.

An automaker union in Germany called for a strike in 2018 for precisely this reason. It said a 28-hour workweek with current wages and benefits intact would make employees more productive and engaged at work.

Why is reducing our time at work — back to 40 hours or, ideally, even less — so important?

Sleep is a big part of the story. In 1910, most Americans got nine hours of sleep. Today, 40 percent of them get less than six hours per night. A lack of sleep correlates with a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and Alzheimer’s disease. The CDC recognized poor sleep as a public health epidemic in 2014.

Researchers from Australian National University found that employees who clock excessive hours at work each week are at risk of developing a variety of physical and mental health problems. They recommend capping the workweek at no more than 39 hours.

Additional research from University College in London demonstrated a correlation between excessive work hours and a variety of cardiovascular problems, including atrial fibrillation, which is a known catalyst for strokes.

Americans sit an average of 9.3 hours a day. Not all jobs are sedentary, but the duration of inactivity for workers throughout an average day stands at 12.3 percent. Columbia University has been collecting an interesting body of research around this. Employees who trim their idle time to 11.5 hours per day cut their chances of premature death in half compared to employees who remain sedentary for 13 hours. In fact, the authors of this study went so far as to claim that long hours behind a desk should carry health warnings the same way cigarettes do.

Workers who are stuck behind a desk all day should take regular breaks to stretch and move around. Even small things like this can help combat health woes related to sedentary jobs.

The Laws of Diminishing Returns

There is a clear upper limit to human productivity, according to an ever-larger body of research. Some of it says that, out of a possible eight hours on the job, humans are truly productive for barely three hours.

It seems we’ve been approaching an understanding of these diminishing returns for more than 100 years. In 1914, Ford Motor Co. cut its employees’ workdays down to eight hours, which was unprecedented at the time. Wages stayed the same. The productivity of Ford’s factories didn’t collapse. The company didn’t fall into ruin. Instead, it became more productive.

We have the technology at our disposal now to bring the 40-hour workweek even lower. Instead, many in the world are digging in their heels.

The co-founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, declared recently that 72-hour workweeks are “a blessing.” He defended at length the Chinese tech sector’s tendency to impose 12-hour days and six-day weeks on its employees. As that nation’s wealthiest individual, it’s fairly obvious that time doesn’t carry the same weight for him as it does for others — including those who helped him accumulate his riches in the first place.

He was right about one thing, though: every minute spent at a job you hate is torture.

We all must work for the things we want and some of the things we need in life. However, we are getting worse, not better, at equitably sharing the fruits of our productivity and our technological leaps.

We can also recognize that not every job on planet Earth carries the same amount of cachet. When more than one-third of workers in Britain and one-quarter of workers in America believe their jobs are meaningless, it becomes apparent we have a problem. Among other things, it’s a compensation issue. A job is less likely to feel meaningless if a person feels their time and worth as a human being is properly valued.

We’re not just talking about compensation with money. Among other things, solving this problem means compensating workers with the time off they need to cultivate their family lives, develop hobbies, get well, recharge their batteries and come to work with something other than dread in their hearts.