Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

Features

January 23, 2014

Why 'live to work' mindset wins out in US

Overwork is not good for productivity. If you're doing physical labor, you get tired. If you're doing customer service, you get cranky. If you're sitting at a desk doing so-called knowledge work, you get stale and unimaginative. Moreover, these deficits are cumulative; the longer you work crazy hours, the more of a strain this puts on your productivity.

So why, over the past few decades, have knowledge workers come to work such long hours? A recent column by James Surowiecki explores the issue, and he hits a lot of good points. But I want to highlight one possibility that he doesn't mention: As work has gotten more specialized, the penalty for handing off work to multiple people has risen.

When people complain about work-family balance, they frequently complain that two people who each work 30 hours a week are paid much less than half as much as one person working 60 hours a week. Surowiecki notes that it's more expensive to hire two people (benefits, desks, etc.). But that's not the only cost. In specialized jobs, two people who are each working 30 hours a week may actually be much less productive than one working 60 — even if working 60 hours makes each of those hours much less productive than they could be.

The problem is that when work is specialized, each worker has individual knowledge about the job that has to be passed off to anyone else working on that job. If you split the job, you increase the amount of time that is spent telling the other person what you know . . . and increase the risk that something will be missed because one person knew one thing and the other knew something else, and those two pieces of information never met in the same head.

More workers also means more time managing those workers. Ever been at a firm or department that went from five people to 35? How much more of your time got sucked up in meetings? As work teams grow, you start to need elaborate hierarchies of communication and control that absorb lots of time and require extra people whose jobs are just managing all the others.

And as the pace of communications has accelerated, it has paradoxically gotten more difficult to do without people. If you're an American working with folks in Europe, you quickly learn to write off the summer, because it's impossible to get anything done when everyone takes multiweek vacations. By the time one person gets back, the other person is off. This is maddening if you're working on anything time-sensitive.

This is not to say that the overcrowding of the American schedule is the right approach. I have the American tendency to fill every waking hour with work, as much as someone is willing to give me. After seven years of blogging professionally, I've come to realize that I have to force myself to take vacations — real ones, where the phone is off and I don't promise to work on just a couple of little tidbits, such as maybe a reported feature. Every time I come back from vacation, I dive back into work with new ideas and a lot more energy, and I think, "Why don't I do this more often?" And still, every year, I lose most of my vacation days.

Maybe U.S. employers should be more like the Economist, which, when I worked there, required you to take all your vacation — not "use it or lose it," just "use it." But you can see why they aren't, when most of the economic and cultural pressures run the other way.

1
Text Only
Features
  • Study: Kids gain weight more quickly over summer break

    Any parent or teacher can tell you that schoolchildren tend to slip back a bit academically over the long summer break. But now a Harvard University study has come up with troubling indications that they also gain weight more quickly during those months when, traditionally, we hope they're outdoors much of the time, enjoying the summer sun.

    June 16, 2014

  • 20140614-AMX-RETIRE-GENX14.jpg Lean retirement looms for Generation X

    When their working years end, Gen-Xers might have to live on just half of their pre-retirement income, compared with 60 percent for the Baby Boom generation, Pew said last year.

    June 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140612-AMX-FATHERS-CARDS123.jpg Father's Day cards make subjects the targets of jokes

    There's a good chance if you receive — or give — a Father's Day card this weekend, Dad will be portrayed as a flatulent, beer-obsessed, tool-challenged buffoon who would rather hog the remote, go fishing or play golf than be with the kids.

    June 15, 2014 3 Photos

  • Texting while driving is latest teen risk as smoking declines

    While smoking among American teens has fallen to a 22-year low, most adolescents admit to engaging in a new type of risky behavior: texting while driving.

    June 15, 2014

  • $15 minimum wage puts Seattle in uncharted waters

    Depending on which pundit is nattering away, this means Seattle is either going to fall off the map and become a "Mad Max"-style economic wasteland or transform into an egalitarian utopia that inspires sweeping pro-labor activism nationwide.

    June 7, 2014

  • 2010-Winter-Olympic-Games-001.jpg Nobody wants to host the Winter Olympics

    If we end up watching slopestyle from the Central Asia steppes in 2022, it will likely be because it's becoming clear that nobody in Europe wants to host these Olympics anymore. Publics may finally be getting wise to the fact that the long-term economic benefits of hosting mega-events like the Olympics or the World Cup are usually negligible at best.

    May 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • airplanes-work-1.jpg Airfare honesty? It may be an oxymoron

    The issue of fare advertising has taken on a renewed sense of urgency now that Congress is considering removing the Transportation Department's full-fare advertising rule, which requires airlines and ticket sellers to display a price that you can actually book.

    May 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • Study: Both men and women feel less stress at work than at home

    In a newly released study in the Journal of Science and Medicine, researchers carefully examined the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, of a variety of workers throughout the day. The data clearly showed that both men and women are significantly less stressed out at work than they are at home.
     And the women they studied said they were happier at work. While the men said they felt happier at home.

    May 27, 2014

  • Five myths about caffeine

    But how much do you know about the drug - and yes, it is a drug - you're consuming? Before downing one more gulp of your favorite stimulant, let go of some persistent, caffeinated myths.

    May 27, 2014

  • Making the most of longer school days

    Research shows that extra time doesn't help unless it is well used. With that in mind, the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning has just released recommendations on the best way to construct a longer school day.

    May 26, 2014

AP Video
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.