By Lary Crews
By some measures, the U.S. worker is the hardest-working employee on the planet. The U.N. International Labor Organization reports that U.S. employees put in an average of 1,804 work hours in 2006. In Asia, by comparison, seven countries surpassed 2,200 average hours per worker, but the workers' productivity suffered. And compared with workers in developed nations such as France and Norway, which have high rates of productivity, U.S. workers log many more work hours (United Nations 2007).
This cultural propensity for working hard helps make the U.S. the richest nation on earth, but it also comes at a price. There's a widespread feeling among U.S. workers that they must work more hours to get ahead in their careers. After all, managers often judge performance largely in terms of hours spent working. Although many employees yearn to work fewer hours, experts say they are often loath to ask for a decrease in hours for fear they'll be branded as indolent or uncommitted to their job (Vedantam 2006). This dynamic can lead to overwork, burnout and a range of problems that stem from burnout.
Most employers are aware that they're involved in a kind of balancing act. They have to boost output and productivity even while struggling to shrink turnover and keep employee morale buoyant. Employers can lose talented workers because the system filters out otherwise productive workers who don't wish to work long hours for years at a time (Vedantam 2006). Burnout was, in fact, cited as a principal driver of employee turnover by three-quarters of U.S. workers surveyed in 2006 by the online career site CareerBuilder.com ("Many Actions," 2006).
U.S. workers often feel so busy at work—or feel that taking vacation will be seen as a lack of commitment—that they skip vacations entirely. U.S. employees stockpiled an estimated total of 574 million unused vacation days in 2006, according to the travel Website Expedia.com ("Vacation Deprivation," 2007).
Some experts argue "workaholism" is becoming more prevalent, potentially harming productivity. Physical and mental burnout from too many hours on the job can impair business judgment and lead to destructive behavior, says James Nocks, medical director of the Veterans Health Administration in Oxford, PA (Nocks 2007). Such employees, howevr, need the capacity to handle their work so they don't harm themselves and, ultimately, their productivity and careers (Wulfhorst 2006).
What can companies do to stave off burnout? Becoming better workflow managers can help. For example, in busy times, managers can hire temps or part-timers to pick up the slack or temporarily transfer employees to the affected areas (Thomas 2006). Employers can also alter the work environment to reduce physical stress. They can change the layout of the workplace, seating arrangements, lighting, temperature, noise levels, and anything else that may be detracting from performance. As for mental stress, firms can do things such as offering employees a quiet room in the office where they can go, sit down, close their eyes, forget the pressures of the day and just relax.
Earthlink, an Internet service provider, created a category of time off it calls "earned time," or "e-time." The e-time is tracked on the company's corporate intranet, and the boss can actually urge someone to take some time off if that person has been working too hard. And at financial services company Wachovia, bosses reward workers with as many as three extra paid days off as a performance bonus, which has done much to eliminate burnout and improve morale (Shellenbarger 2006).
If they can't have more leisure time, employees at least want greater flexibility. While 84% of U.S. workers surveyed in the summer of 2006 considered workplace flexibility important to their happiness on the job, only 49% were satisfied with the amount of flexibility they had, according to the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care. The study found that employees who enjoyed flexibility at work were more productive, effective, committed and resilient (WFD Consulting, 2007).
Some experts advocate sabbaticals as a work/life balance perk, but U.S. employers have been slow to offer them. According to the SHRM 2007 Benefits Survey Report, just 4% of the 590 firms surveyed offer paid sabbaticals and 16% of firms allow unpaid sabbaticals. Sabbaticals are seen by some executives as being unduly expensive and risky as a retention and engagement tool, but many HR professionals recommend sabbaticals as a way to combat burnout (Fegley 2007).
These and other strategies could become a rising priority in the future, brought about by the need—in an age of mobile phones and computers—to provide employees some protection from the 24/7 workplace. In fact, a greater demand by U.S. workers for work/life balance is the social trend most likely to shape workplace restructuring in coming years, said 23% of 1,232 HR professionals responding to a poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (2006).
Whatever strategies are used, recognizing and addressing burnout should help keep U.S. workers globally competitive without killing the golden goose of productive work.
For more information on worker burnout issues, visit www.i4cp.com
Appleson, Gail. "Offices Inject Play into Work." Houston Chronicle, June 4, 2006.
Fegley, Shawn. 2007 Benefits Survey Report. Society for Human Resource Management, June 2007.
"Many Actions Add Up to Successful Talent Management." HRfocus. ProQuest. July 2006, pp. 3 .
Nocks, James. "Executive Coaching - Who Needs It?" The Physician Executive, March/April 2007, pp. 46–48.
Shellenbarger, Sue. "Companies Retool Time-Off Policies to Prevent Burnout, Reward Performance." Wall Street Journal Online. ProQuest. January 5, 2006, p. D1.
Society for Human Resource Management. SHRM Workplace Forecast. 2006.
Thomas, Robin. "Mandatory Overtime and Alternatives." Human Capital, September 2006, p. 14.
United Nations International Labor Organization. "U.N.: Americans Most Productive." Cnn.com, September 12, 2007.
"Vacation Deprivation Isn't Good for Business." Best Practices in HR, February 17, 2007, p. 5.
Vedantam, Shankar. "In Today's Rat Race, the Most Overworked Win." Washington Post, September 4, 2006.
WFD Consulting. "The New Career Paradigm: Flexibility Briefing." 2007.
Wulfhorst, Ellen. "New York Workaholics Struggle to Say 'No' to Work." Reuters. March 29, 2006.
About The Author(s)
Lary Crews is with Institute for Corporate Productivity.