WorkWoes Act I: Worklife—When Work Becomes Our Lives

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About This Series: WorkWoes is a new series from HelloSign in which we uncover—and try to find ways to solve—modern cultural phenomena that make work less enjoyable.

For the first piece in this series, we’re diving straight into the unhealthy convergence of work with our everyday lives and strategies for coping with what can easily become the all-consuming nature of a knowledge career in the modern age.

It wasn’t the email that woke me up—that distinct displeasure belongs solely to the spider in my dream—but it was the email that kept me up.

Two full, groggy hours before my alarm was set to go off, there I lay.

My eyes moved rapidly behind tightly shut lids. I wasn’t deep in sleep, I was deep in concentration.

I was typing and retyping the same email over and over in my head. Man, even sleepy me is a perfectionist! Here’s why I won’t be able to make that deadline. No wait, here’s an even better way to say why I won’t be able to make that deadline.

Forget morning pages and meditation. The only thing I had time to visualize this morning was the work I could get done before work so I could, well, get more work done while I was working.

And I’d be willing to guess, as I sit here on my umpteenth email and way-too-manyth cup of coffee, that I’m not the only one who’s experienced this unhealthy oozing of work into every other aspect of my life.

In fact, I know I’m not.

Ever-Increasing Hours Force Work Woes to Spill Over Into Our Everyday Lives

As processes became smarter and smarter, work hours declined steadily throughout America for the majority of the 1900s. But then, during the 1970s, something changed.

The number of 25 to 64-year-old men who were already spending 50+ hours per week at work grew from 14.7 percent in 1980 to 18.5 percent in 2001. Among older, educated, and salaried men; those numbers jumped from 22.2 to 30.5 percent.

In a relatively short span of time, the frequency of long work hours increased by 14.4 percentage points among the top wage earners. Long hours fell by 6.7 percentage points for the lowest earners. Where the lowest-paid 20 percent of workers had traditionally put in the longest hours, just two decades later, it was the highest-paid 20 percent of workers who were at work the most.

And these chronically long hours that consume the majority of our waking hours—and which disproportionately affect educated workers in higher-income, professional roles—have continued to trend well into the 21st Century.

Graph showing different work hours by occupation

Gallup found that full-time employees work an average of 47 hours per week. That’s like practically adding an entire extra day to every work week! Over 20 percent of employees reported worked 50+ hours a week and another 18 percent logged 60 or more.

Where do all these “extra” workings hours come from? They come from our actual lives.

So it’s no surprise that a third of adults employed in the U.S. say they can expect to be found getting a little extra work done on any given weekend, holiday, or other day “off.” Forty percent even say they’re fine with answering urgent work correspondence right from the family dinner table.

Graph showing that U.S ranks 29th of 40 countries when measuring work-life balance

It’s been decades in the making. Ever-increasing hours have forced “what we do” to become “who we are” as work tasks, responsibilities, and stressors spill over into our everyday lives.

And when we work these grueling hours, work doesn’t only consume our lives—it consumes our health, our relationships, and even comes full circle to eat away at our ability to be successful in the workplace.

For many, our work has become one of the most important aspects of our lives. How did we get here?

How Did Work and Life Become So Intertwined?

What has happened to make work-life balance so woefully not balanced? Let’s explore how a combination of technological advancements and an unpredictable employment market collided to change our cultural perception of success and the value of a life separate from work.

We May Work All the Time Simply Because, Well, We Can

Blaming smart devices for poor work-life balance is one of the most popular clichés seems of the twenty-tens—but that doesn't mean there isn’t some truth to the theory.

The ability to remain connected to each other and, more realistically, to our work via always-on smart devices is still a bit novel and quite a lot addicting. And with estimates that the average person will own at least 15 connected devices by the year 2030, around-the-clock communication will soon be ubiquitous across our day-to-day lives, if it isn’t already. In this case, employers and employees alike can almost be forgiven for their tendency to slip into digital work tasks every once in a while during down time.

However, it’s when workers say their employers expect them to respond at all hours (which 60 percent of full-time workers report) that smart devices cross the line from part-time productivity tools to weapons of mass distraction.

Graph showing how often employees work outside of regular working hours

Compensation for Knowledge Work Has Become Less Linear

After researching why the trend of decreasing work hours reversed for the first time (except for a brief stint during World War II) in the 1970s, Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano conclude in their paper The Expanding Workweek? Understanding Trends in Long Work Hours Among U.S. Men that longer hours are partially the result of better "marginal incentives.”

These “marginal incentives” include bonuses, raises, and even promotions; which are all universal signals of success in one’s life, workplace, and the labor market as a whole.

The compensation model for skilled, salaried work has shifted away from the linear trade of time for money to a wink-and-nod arrangement where around-the-clock connectivity is (eventually) rewarded with a substantial payoff.

For many, that promise is enough to put their real life on hold.

Busyness, Not Leisure, Now Signals Success

Just ask Cadillac—the leisurely lifestyle rife with yachts and tennis matches that signaled success and wealth in the 1980s is one that would be scoffed at by today’s weekend-working business leaders.

Comparison of early 1990s GM ad and an ad from GM in 2014

Just what happened to flip our perception of success 180 degrees in the past quarter of a century?

The rise of knowledge work.

Knowledge work, or work where employees “think for a living,” is becoming more prevalent as repetitive, manual jobs are slowly automated away. Because of this, knowledge workers are seen as desirable in the job market and individuals who manage to stay busy with knowledge work are perceived as being the most successful.

So when your dear spouse brings their knowledge work to the dinner table, the kiddie soccer game, and even the bedroom—it may simply be their subconscious way of conforming to modern success signals.

After all, thumbs fly furiously across their screen into the wee hours of the morning is what success looks like, right?

The Always-On Attitude is a Survival Tactic in the Competitive Job Market

I would say competition for jobs is at an all-time high but, frankly, it’s been pretty high for quite a while now.

Simply put: It’s become the norm for workers to compete for jobs instead of for employers to compete for workers. This has spawned a lingering fear that any of us can be replaced at any time. So we go above and beyond what employers ask and sacrifice our and our loved ones’ health and happiness by skipping vacations and working when we should be living.

The Fallout From Work Becoming the Center of our Lives

An overabundance of stressful work hours in the work-life mix can kill productivity, profitability, brain cells, and even you.

Out-of-Whack Work Habits Have Detrimental Health Effects

When work becomes our lives, it doesn’t just exhaust our minds—it can also exhaust our bodies in all kinds of irreparable ways.

People who take their work home with them to continue into the night (or over the weekend) are susceptible to all kinds of scary health defects, including an increased risk to suffer from poor sleep, depression, anxiety, strokes, and even deadly heart attacks! And these side effects of poor work-life aren’t something you can just cure by deciding to leave the office on time once in a while—you’re often stuck with them, and their complications, for life.

Overall, the health issues related to poor work-life balance are estimated to cost as much as $190 billion each year in healthcare spending in the U.S.

Chart showing health issues associated with people working over 55 hours a week

Working Around the Clock Kills Productivity and Profit

More hours do not more productivity make. In fact, they could even end up costing businesses big money in the long run.

According to Stanford economist John Pencavel, a worker’s output can be fairly reliable if they work less than 49 hours per week—and, by all means, that should be enough. But for workers who sacrifice their lives to go over that 49-hour threshold, things get ugly, fast.

At the 50 hour mark, productivity takes a nosedive. The level of productivity between a person who works 55 hours and one who works 50 hours is nearly identical. And when you look at those who spend 70 hours each week—or 10 hours of their lives every. single. day.—on work tasks, they rarely actually accomplish more than about 56 hours worth of work.

Hours worked over a certain threshold are harmful to our bodies, our lives, and even the bottom line and the very businesses we’re trying to boost!

In addition, research shows that accidents and mistakes become more prevalent after nine hours of work. At 12 hours, accidents double. And that costs moolah. A study on fatigue in the workforce for the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that even a decade ago, burned-out workers were costing employers $136.4 billion every year in wasted productivity!

Where have we seen this proven before? In 1914, when Henry Ford famously doubled his employees’ pay and shortened the workday to 8 hours—which dropped the standard manufacturing work week from 60 to the 40 hours we still use today. Even after spending twice as much on salary and cutting hours by 40 percent, Mr. Ford’s experiment led to a surge in productivity—and profit.

Letting Work Run Our Lives Actually Makes Us Dumber!

After another hectic day at work, you panic and spend a few extra hours in the office or take some work home with you to finish up.

No biggie, right? You just had to push through and now it’s done (until next time, that is).

Well, as it turns out, that time you’re stealing away from the rest of your life also has a negative impact on your intellect.

Behavioral researchers call working in a state of sustained hecticness “tunneling.” When we tunnel, we lose the ability to focus on the important things and instead work on the most immediate, and often low value, tasks instead. And that really isn’t surprising, considering that tunneling makes us dumb! Seriously, we lose an average of 14 IQ points when we enter a stressed-out, tunneling state of mind.

Illustration showing how hectic work environment can cause workers to lose IQ points

And that doesn’t just apply to at work. If work makes you feel stressed out even when you aren’t actually working, that missing chunk of IQ could be the reason you feel foggy, forgetful, and perhaps just a little less smart as you go about your day-to-day activities.

How Can We Take Our Lives Back?

“Go on a digital detox!”

“Time-box your tasks (and then feel guilty when they don’t fit into that box)!”

“Take public transportation to work just so that you can have a longer commute during which you can work more!”

“Just, like, stop working sometimes!”

You’ve heard, and you’ve tried, every asinine work-life balance hack in the book.

And the fact that they just aren’t working is a sign—a sign that correcting the work-life imbalance isn’t something employees can do on their own. To change the way work works, it’s going to take buy-in from the people in charge of managing that work.

So here are a few tactics that both employers and employees can implement to change the way we schedule, think about, and perform our jobs to create a more healthy environment in which we have the chance to live the lives that we’re working so hard to afford.

Graph comparing negative and positive factors contributing to a work-life balance

Employers Must Build a Culture of Balance

Changing the “Ideal Worker” Model Starts at the Top

There’s no use pretending. Right now, the model for the “ideal worker” is someone who gets to work early, stays late, never leaves their post, and seems to be available to work around the clock—constantly emailing, messaging, and attending work-related events (And probably bragging about it. Shut up, Brad!).

Unfortunately, this ideal excludes the majority of people who need and want time to themselves outside of work to raise families, enjoy friends, pursue dreams, and simply rest and reset.

Another hard truth is that, realistically, a single rank-and-file employee will not be able to influence this unfair perception of the “ideal worker” enough. The model will only change and the insanity will only stop if bosses enable and encourage it to.

How? Well, while it may seem subversive at first, it’s really not all that hard. Managers, directors, and “big bosses” simply have to instill balance in their own lives first!

Leave work on time. Don’t reply to messages around the clock. Use your vacation time. Remind your subordinates to do the same. Not only will your own body, mind, and family thank you—so will your company as morale, productivity, and balance are restored.

Build in Slack and Transition Time

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’ve ever worked on a single project that didn’t run over time, over budget, or both.

As humans, we’re just plain not good at estimating the time and effort it takes to accomplish tasks. In fact, we get it wrong so often that we gave this tendency a name—the planning fallacy.

It’s this planning fallacy that causes us to overpromise at work then spend frantic hours over evenings and weekends polishing up that project that’s due Monday.

What employers can do to manage this nearly-inevitable situation is to build intentional slack into the schedule.

Each week, set aside a block of “down time” in which workers are free to finish any work that got delayed or ran over time.

Additionally, consider “transitional” days before and after planned time off. Employees are already spending these days wrapping up and then catching up on work anyway, so why not just officially recognize these days instead of piling on new tasks that we all know aren’t going to get done?

“You almost always need a lot more slack than you think you will,” said Matthew Darling, vice president at ideas42—a nonprofit that’s exploring how to use behavioral science to solve work-life conflict. “ … It is actually markedly important for doing good work.”

Just like reframing the ideal worker, planning for slack and transition time also requires a new mental model. Emergencies, unexpected tasks, and life happen. Things will take longer than we think they will. When we recognize and plan for the unplanned, we can prevent work from seeping into and deteriorating the rest of our lives.

And sometimes, planning for slack can literally save lives.

Just look at St. John’s Regional Health Center, a hospital that used to follow the standard procedure of booking operating rooms at full capacity. They were constantly behind, staff was forced to regularly rack up unplanned overtime, and emergency cases often pushed long-scheduled surgeries as late as 2 a.m. But, after making the decision to build in slack by leaving just a single operating room unbooked, the hospital was able to grow their revenue, increase overall surgical volume by 11 percent, and even drop the number of surgeries performed after 3 p.m. by nearly half.

Work-Life Balance Tactics for Employees

Look at Work in Seasons

Brad Stulberg, coauthor of The Passion Paradox, a book about pursuing your dreams while minimizing the risk of burnout, suggests that some unbalance is a part of life and we’d do better accepting and planning for it than ignoring that reality.

His recommendation is that we think in terms of “seasons” rather than hours in a day. Some seasons, such as during that huge product launch or big hiring push or week-long training conference, will require you to spend longer-than-normal hours at work. Other seasons may include a nice long vacation or cutting out at noon on Friday once in a while.

Thinking seasonally can help you see the “light at the end of the tunnel” during the times when work is taking up more of your life than you’d like it to.

Leverage Buy-In to Negotiate Trade Offs

It’s easy to chide someone who’s suffering from poor work-life balance for saying yes to too many responsibilities, but what are they supposed to do in a culture where saying no to an opportunity may jeopardize their climb up the ladder?

There may be a way to preserve your status at work without consistently taking that work, and all the stress and guilt that comes with it, home with you.

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time and director of the Better Life Lab at New America, suggests creating an open dialog with managers about your current responsibilities and encouraging buy-in on projects both you and they are excited about. That way, when a new “opportunity” (aka responsibility) crops up, you have the leverage to negotiate with them over whether they want you to divert your attention to this new job or keep working toward the one that’s already on your plate.

This allows you to essentially say “no” to an overwhelming list of tasks while simultaneously signaling that you have your organization’s best interest at heart.

Act I, Fin: Fight the Spread of Dangerous Work Habits and Other Work Woes

As we’ve discovered, it isn’t all that uncommon for the modern professional to define their life by the work they do rather than their humanity. And if the work is rewarding and balanced, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But to a growing degree, this isn’t the case.

Around-the-clock connectivity and a culture that celebrates busyness are forcing America’s knowledge workers into increasingly long hours that bleed over into their home lives. This growing imbalance in the work-life mix is making our businesses, our brains, and even our bodies sick.

We hope that this first piece in our WorkWoes series has shown you that it’s high time for employers and employees alike to band together and try our tactics to build a work culture where our lives are celebrated just as much as our careers and where the flexibility of the modern office is used to help workers rather than take advantage of them.

Keep following along as the HelloSign team explores the dark side of productivity, the one framework that’s failing modern workplaces, how we’re going about incentives all wrong, and other work woes that plague the age of the knowledge worker.

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