Man at computer holding his head.

Death by Overwork

by James Porter June 08, 2021

This is a 3-part series on how Americans - partly as the result of the pandemic - are working longer hours, unable to establish boundaries between work and home life, and getting stressed out as a result. In part 1 we will look at the problem, in part 2 we will look at how other industrialized nations approach the problem and in part 3 we will look at solutions that can be applied right here in the US.

I read an article in the New York Times this week entitled “Working Less is a Matter of Life and Death.” It included an illustration that shows the word WORK handwritten in large red letters on a desk calendar, Monday through Friday. I thought this illustration missed two important teaching points about our modern over-worked culture: Saturday and Sunday. It seems the pandemic (and working remotely) has shifted our attitudes and perhaps even our values about work. We Americans feel like we need to be working: all the time.

The editorial cites a new study by the World Health Organization that concludes: working 55 hours a week or more may be hazardous to your health. The WHO estimates this increasing tendency toward over-work led to 745,000 deaths in the year 2016. “Risk of stroke rises by 35 percent and fatal heart disease by 17 percent for those who can’t pry their nose from the grindstone.”

I have a client who is head of HR for a small division of a large Fortune 500 company. She’s very health conscious. She exercises, she meditates, and she practices mindfulness. Before the pandemic she told me her commute to work was an hour or more each way. When she started working remotely, I naturally assumed she’d use that time she’d formerly spent commuting to do something healthy for herself. “Nope,” she told me, “I work right through those hours at home and I work after dinner as well.”

This is not an isolated case. Ironically, now that management isn’t looking over their shoulders, many employees are working more hours and not less. (Which may explain why suddenly employers across the country are generously allowing employees to continue working remotely, even after the pandemic ends.) But this whole notion of voluntarily working longer hours combined with the inability to establish boundaries is leading to big problems with stress, anxiety, fatigue and burnout.

When my father first started working as a salesman for General Electric in 1947, he got two weeks of unpaid vacation and was expected to report to the office for a half day on Saturdays. By the time he retired at age 62 in 1981, he was working a 5-day, 35-hour week and had six weeks of PAID vacation. During the last 5 years of his career at GE, we would go away in August for the entire month! We stayed in a little cottage with no telephone, and he would check in with the office, by payphone, only once during that whole month.

Even though I witnessed this all first-hand, it still seems unbelievable in retrospect. It’s not like he was sneaking calls to work on a cellphone, or faxing, or communicating with his office in some other way. There were no other ways. In case you’re wondering, as a sales manager, he was servicing a multi-million-dollar account. Yet somehow, he was able to put all that on autopilot for a month every year!

So how did we get to the point where we feel like we can’t get away for even ONE DAY without checking our messages numerous times in a 24-hour period? (Answer: Technology.) And how do we get back to working less and vacationing more? (One answer: taking control of our technology.) Is it simply a mindset shift that’s required or do we need a cultural shift as well? In next week’s installment we’ll look at how other industrialized nations solve this problem (or in some cases don’t). And in part 3 we’ll look at solutions that can be enacted right here in the US.

James Porter
James Porter