Most employees would agree that work is expected to take up a substantial portion of time and they accept this as a trade-off for being able to enjoy their life, provide for themselves, and provide for their families. A new study shows, however, that for Americans the balance of time they split between work tasks and other things is shifting. For them, work is becoming substantially overextended into hours that have traditionally been reserved for non-employment related activities.
Is this true and, if so, what does it look like? We’ve got the details.
Increased weekly work hours
For many decades, the length of time for a traditional workweek used to be 40 hours. Generally, professions could provide for a standard workweek with a set number of hours and clear start and end times. However, the working hours in a current given week are much different than they used to be. While many workers are salaried, they are expected to work until their job is done and take on extra tasks when necessary without receiving compensation, such as the extra pay or comp time, that their hourly counterparts receive.
Statistics support this trend. More than 85 percent of working males and 65 percent of working females have been shown to be working more than 40 hours a week and the hours add up. According to the International Labor Organization, Americans work 137 hours more each year than their counterparts in Japan, 260 more hours each year than those in Great Britain, and 499 more hours each year than their counterparts in France.
Laws in the United States contribute to this trend. While at least 134 countries have laws affecting the maximum length of time an employee can work in a given week, the United States doesn’t.
Breaking away from work
How are these work hours creeping up on Americans? Devices like smartphones and tablets keep workers connected to their jobs and just a phone call, email, or text away from employer demands. These requests may come in during traditional work hours or not, and on traditional workdays, weekends and holidays. Employees need to address them without receiving an equivalent amount of time off during work.
In addition to a shifting of work hours, vacation time has shortened for many employees from a regular span of two weeks to long weekends — if they’re lucky. On these vacations, workers may continue to be connected to their jobs and answering requests while they’re supposed to be disconnected. Generally, amounts of vacation time that are allocated to employees in the United States is less than those in other developed countries. Spanish workers receive a minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 14 public holidays. Similarly, French workers are entitled by law to at least 25 vacation and 11 public holidays.
Along with the pressure to work a longer traditional day and week, the pressure to stay out of the office on sick leave is also mounting. If they do need to stay home, they may be encouraged to work from home or to check in periodically rather than resting.
These trends are accompanied by a change in the structures of how worker time out of the office is tracked and managed. Many companies have experienced a move towards labeling time out of the office as “paid time off” rather than designating it as sick time or vacation time, sometimes allowing it to lessen overall time from work. Some employers also allow time off to expire if unused during a designated time period.
In a lot of ways, these changes in work habits are affected by cultural changes in the workforce. While past employees may have talked about their ability to take time off or leave the office during the day as a sign of success, current employees may brag about their success based on the number of emails that they receive or the number of vacation days that they aren’t able to take because they’re too busy.
In addition to status incentives to working harder, many workplaces simply haven’t maintained their staff structures to allow for one employee to cover for another during their time out of the office. Some of this may be due to smaller staff sizes where each person maintains a heavier workload with longer workdays and less time for unexpected tasks.
Another factor at play in increasing work efforts may be the force of competition at play. Staff members may be competing with each other for higher-profile projects or the ability to determine how work is run. In this environment, a staff member may not be comfortable turning their workload over to someone else, even temporarily.
Impacts on employee health
As it turns out, all of this extra work really isn’t good news for American workers. Extra hours at work can impact employee sleep, increase their stress, and cause burnout, depression or both. This makes things harder at home, further depleting workers’ ability to enjoy time with family or at other non-work activities. It can also adversely affect work productivity, making employees less able to focus on tasks, communicate effectively, and collaborate with teammates.
As American employees continue to spend more time at work, these adverse impacts may motivate companies to make changes in favor of better work-life balance. If they can, this would be a welcome change and sure to benefit employees and their families. At the same time, managers may be surprised to find benefits in employee focus and productivity. Ultimately, they may see that, in the case of employee work hours, less really does mean more.