At Risk

Most Americans know the tolls that working too much can take on their personal lives and well-being. But a new study shows that the way they work can make a difference too. One-third of the 1,003 respondents surveyed in the "Overwork in America" study-released today by the New York-based, non-profit group Families and Work Institute-say they feel chronically overworked, while more than half report feeling overwhelmed at some point in the last month by the amount of work they had to accomplish.

More than half of those surveyed complain that during a typical week they have to work on too many tasks at one time and are often interrupted, making it difficult to complete projects. And nearly nine out of 10 surveyed say that while their jobs require them to work hard they don't seem to have enough time to get everything done. As a result, it appears employees are either taking work with them on weekends and vacations--or not going on vacation at all. While 79 percent of those surveyed say they had paid vacation time in 2004, 36 percent were not planning to use it all.

Yet employees who report feeling highly overworked are probably most in need of a vacation. Thirty-six percent of them report feeling high levels of stress, 21 percent exhibit symptoms of depression, and nearly 40 percent of them say their health is not good. For many, their performance seems to be suffering too. Twenty percent of those who feel highly overworked say they are making a lot of mistakes because they have too much to do. They are also more likely to feel angry at their employer and resentful of co-workers. NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett Ozols spoke with Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, about the survey results and what employees--and employers--can learn from them: Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You found that the way many of us work today seems as important--or more--than the numbers of hours we work. Why is that?

Ellen Galinsky: We looked at the biggest predictors of being or feeling overworked, and the number of hours worked disappeared as a major predictor. We tend to think it's always time [spent at work] that matters, but the way we work--statistically speaking anyway--appears to be more important than the hours we put in.

You found that the way we work can have a negative effect on our health and our effectiveness at the office. How so?

Many of the skills we need to survive in this fast-paced economy--like trying to do six things at once, working while being interrupted all the time, jumping from one task to another, and making vacation into work time--can become too much at a certain level. So the challenge is to know what that level is for you, and to change some things to help you work more effectively without hurting you in the long run or the short run. We know in the short run that if you feel overworked, you are more resentful and angry and make more mistakes. In the long run, we're talking about the effects on health. Though these are only paper-and-pencil correlations, they are strong correlations.

How serious is the situation?

I think the health of employees is at risk. We all know that work is a major contributor to our health, and it can be positive or negative. But there are things we can do to make a difference.

What changes can employees make to be less stressed and more efficient at work?

We need rest and recovery in between times of real focus on work. We know that in sports, but we don't know that in work. Yet work has become more like a competitive sport. Take regular breaks. Set do-able goals. We also need to have other things that are really important in our lives.

Were you surprised by any of the study's findings?

I was surprised that more than 30 percent of respondents didn't take their full vacation time. Another finding that was maybe not surprising, but we should pay attention to, is that 29 percent say they are spending a lot of time doing something that is a waste of time. Given how hard we are working and that many people are doing things that are not of value, that is a huge waste of resources.

It seems like Americans aren't just working more, but working differently than a generation ago. What's changed?

You can't look anywhere now without knowing that we work in a global economy, and the competition is worse. And technology has created a faster pace. Fifteen years ago you might have been expected to wait a day or so to get back to someone versus now, when people expect an instant answer on email. There's also the loss of jobs. People are much more worried about losing their jobs now. It's much more intense at work.

Are the boundaries between our work and personal lives disappearing?

The boundaries are much more fluid, and it is up to us. What I found when interviewing people is that they were creating their own rules even if they didn't realize it. One doctor said, 'I don't take calls during dinner unless it's an emergency.' Another doctor had red and green pieces of paper and she would hold up a red piece of paper if the call she was on was an emergency, and a green one if the call wasn't important and the kids could approach her. People create their own boundaries. A lot of people say, if I leave work at such and such a time, I'm good. If I leave at such and such time. I'm bad.

What can employers do to help?

We did another study called "When Work Works,' looking at the ingredients of effective workplace where employees are committed, engaged, more likely to go the extra mile, more likely to stay, and in better mental health. People don't think about flexibility and yet it was one of the strongest predictors. We have found that it is entirely possible to find ways to create flexibility for people. By flexibility, we mean that it has to work for both employee and employer. It is critically important.

Can you give an example of a company that's done that well?

I've seen employers come up with creative solutions. There's a blood bank in Salt Lake City where employees work seven days on, then have seven days off. It's a new version of the compressed work week. They schedule it so it's three days in one week and four days in the next, so they comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act. And they found that turnover dropped significantly. They found that people liked having a week to be a home person then a week to be full-on at work.

Do we need new legislation to address these issues?

The Fair Labor Standards Act needs some fresh eyes. I can't begin to tell you what the law should be, but I think employers are coming up with fresh solutions and we can come up with solutions that benefit employees and employers. That's the lens through which we need to look at flexibility. There are also issues with phased retirements and pension that, if we want people working longer, we'll have to pay attention to.

How would you like to see these survey results used?

It's a wake-up call study for us and for employers to look at how we are working. We can work slightly differently but still be effective. There are small changes that can make a big difference.

At Risk | News