Overworking America


By Cody Fenwick

Photo courtesy of Mylius.

Are you working too much? Many Americans feel they are.

In fact, research from Daniel Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli found that Americans work more hours on average per week than similarly wealthy European countries.

Is this a problem? The United States is a very rich country, so having a hard-working population may not seem surprising.

“If you work more, you get more dollars,” Hamermesh tells BTR. “The question is, are we, in a sense, like hamsters on a treadmill working as hard as we can? It’s very hard to get off that treadmill if you’re a hamster.”

That is, we might be tricking ourselves into thinking that working countless hours is good for us, while we miss out on social, familial, and leisure activities that we would actually value more.

Hamermesh points out that many European countries have significantly more mandated holidays than the United States. In just the months of April and May, the Dutch celebrate six national holidays, while the US has one.

Additionally, a number of European countries mandate a certain number of vacation days for workers, while the United States does not require any.

These political differences may help to explain the United States’ longer working hours, but what explains the differences in the politics? Joanne Ciulla, professor of the University of Richmond and author of The Working Life, offers a historical explanation.

“If you look at America historically, we’ve always had a work-oriented culture,” she tells BTR. “Because in American history, it made sense to work hard, because you actually could get ahead. So I think Americans start out with a different attitude about work, and the role of work in life, than maybe Europeans do.”

Photo courtesy of Kuba Bozanowski.

Nowadays, though, lots of Americans are not just working to “make it” and live comfortably. Some people feel they have to work hard and are barely scraping by. For others, working long, hard hours sometimes seems to be an end in itself, especially in certain professions.

In particular, highly competitive and lucrative fields such as finance cultivate an atmosphere in which overworking is the norm. However, recent research suggests that a significant amount of employees in these fields may be misrepresenting the amount of work they do.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that hyper-competitive fields would expect excessive hours. Some might think their intense schedules are hardly a problem; after all, no one is forced to work in these fields, and these workers are generally compensated well (if not unreasonably well).

But these trends have deep effects on the rest of society. For example, Ciulla points out that medical interns are often expected to work brutally long hours, which she calls “ridiculous.”

“At some of these places, it’s a way of showing how tough you are, showing that you’re up for the game, basically,” she explains. “It’s been part of the culture of those occupations for a long time.”

Proof that there’s any benefit to this kind of culture remains unclear. As Ciulla adds, “It’s kind of scary to think of an intern treating you in a hospital who has been up for hours and hours and hours.”

Further, trends of workers from the top of the income spectrum affect the rest of the work force.

“It’s the high-wage, highly educated people who are working especially hard, and that spills over to lower-wage people who are afraid of not being there when the boss is there,” Hamermesh explains. He finds such spillover effects to be the most concerning.

“One wonders whether blue collar workers really choose [to work long hours], or whether they simply feel that they have to do it. Whereas, for higher educated, high-wage people it seems like more of a choice,” he argues.

Hamermesh adds that the problem is not only that Americans work longer hours than employees in other nations.

“It’s also that we work at goofy times, nighttime, [and] weekends, much more than any other country. That difference has been more striking,” Hamermesh points out. The trend is particularly worrying because there is substantial evidence these kinds of shifts can be detrimental to human health.

Photo courtesy of bark.

Unfortunately, Hamermesh is not certain why the United States differs from European nations in the amount of irregular shift work. He notes, “In other countries, there are some rules about this, but regrettably, in my view, a lot of those countries appear to be abandoning those rules now. I’m afraid they’re going to start looking like us.”

What can we do if we want America to look more like European countries, in terms of work? Policies might help, though of course there’s extensive disagreement over their viability and efficacy. The Obama administration put forth one such proposal, aimed at expanding the class of workers who are required to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime hours, which might reduce excessive hours.

Another proposal gaining attention recently is mandated parental leave, which would allow new parents more time to spend with their children, and more time away from work.

Ciulla is skeptical that such policies could entirely solve the problem.

“Even if you did have regulations, I think there would be informal cultural pressure to work certain hours. With maternity leave and paternity leave, a lot of people don’t even take the time they’re given,” she explains.

Nevertheless, by discussing these issues openly, determining what is at stake in our decisions about how much we work, and noting much time we spend with loved ones, we might gain more clarity and progress on the issue.

Ciulla notes, “I have seen a trend, since I have been studying work, of a lot more thoughtfulness about work and life because a lot of people realize that they’re stretched too thin with their families.”