The Problem With America’s Culture of Overwork

It says a lot that there even needs to be a debate on whether or not overwork is a good thing. But as working more for less becomes the norm in American life — often unquestionably — clearly it is a discussion worth having.

Let us start by putting things into perspective: contrary to popular belief, Japan is no longer the developed country with the most annual working hours by average. That dubious distinction now falls on the U.S. As the Nation reports:

By international standards, Americans put in a lot of time on the job. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’re above the average, clocking 1,789 hours at work in a year—more than Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Each week, the average American puts in 41 hours per week, compared to 38.4 in the United Kingdom, 36.9 in Germany, and just 32.7 in the Netherlands. We also have more workaholics: The percentage of U.S. workers who put in more than 45 hours a week is about double that of Germany, the Netherlands, or France. While we’ve decreased our workload by 112 hours a year over the past four decades, other countries have far outpaced us: The French dropped theirs by 491 hours, the Dutch by 425 and the Canadians by 215.

Doubtless, many Americans consider such a work ethic to be both morally desirable and perfectly acceptable; hence our unique position in the developed world in terms of not mandating paid maternal leave or vacation time.

One might think that all that work contributes to our status as the world’s largest economy by a significant margin. But this is yet another widespread misconception. 

Even so, it doesn’t mean we’re getting a whole lot more done. The countries putting in the least time at work are generally the most productive. Greeks work about 600 more hours a year than Germans do, but German productivity is 70 percent higher. The amount of growth in the gross domestic product for each hour that Americans work has increased by 1.7 percent since 1970—less than the increases in all of the Nordic countries, where people work fewer hours.

Moreover, all studies of actual workers indicate that while working more might produce an initial boost, we burn out pretty quickly and don’t recover until we take a break. One study found that those who put in 55 hours a week performed worse at cognitive functions than those who worked 40 hours. Another found that workers can achieve a small boost by putting in more than 60 hours, but that it only lasts three to four weeks and then falls off. Putting in weeks of overtime eventually reduces productivity, which doesn’t bounce back. After eight 60-hour weeks, productivity is hurt so badly that it would’ve been better simply to stay with a 40-hour week the whole time. One woman who spoke anonymously about her time at Amazon described being forced to leave work by her fiancé every evening at 10 pm and doing work every day of her vacation. “That”s when the ulcer started”, she said. She no longer works there.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with a strong work ethic. But there is a difference between working hard and working efficiently; pushing our physical and mental limitations past the brink is as ineffective as it is unethical. Humans are not machines — indeed, even machines need to be given time for maintenance and repair lest they break down.

And yet despite all the mounting evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, companies continue to undermine the notion of being rational actors in the free market: employees are worked to the bone without proportionally higher pay, and the subsequent losses from turnover and low morale and productivity are tolerated, so long as enough profit is coming in (never mind that in the longer term, having a happy, healthy, and committed workforce means an even greater return on investment).

Sadly, Americans aren’t benefiting from all that research. Our average workweek is nearly a whole workday longer than the 40-hour one that researchers say is most beneficial. Ninety-four percent of professional workers log 50 hours a week or more.

There are certainly plenty of people in the United States who would like more hours at work: 6.3 million are working part time but want to be full time. Others would like more consistent hours, particularly in areas like retail, where schedules can change without warning. But the overall picture is that Americans are working incredibly hard without seeing more pay or a stronger economy.

Of course, with high unemployment comes a large pool of desperate people who will take whatever job they can find, no matter how punishing and low-paying. Hence why companies can get away with burning through wave after wave of workers without concern. There is neither any sense of social responsibility, nor any rational assessment of what a well-paid and well-treated workforce can offer down the road.

As other countries, as well as America’s own history, prove, there is no contradiction between valuing time for leisure and working hard; nor is there any reason why a person who works hard should not get compensated accordingly, especially given how much capital there is to go around. But as long as overwork at the expense of wellness and leisure is tolerated — if not often admired and celebrated — by the very people subjected to this treatment, nothing will change.

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