A recurring conversation among my friends and clients is the staggering amount of work hours that people are now putting into their jobs. I talk with people who arrive at work by 6 or 6:30 a.m. and leave by 7 or 8 that evening. Add challenging workplace dynamics to the equation and they feel burned out at home and at work.
Yet with all this economic uncertainty, most are grateful to even have jobs. Their overwork is an undiscussable they wouldn’t dream of surfacing.
Danielle Auriemma and Tovah Klein of Barnard College recently reported on the status of women in academia who were raising young children. A quote from one of their study participants provides a succinct summary of the dilemma:
“It appears to people that I’m together and have it all, but I know I don’t. I think this whole myth that you can have a job, have a deep relationship with your children, and have a great relationship with your partner, which they’ve been telling women since the 70s, it’s just bull. It’s just completely not true.”
The problem goes beyond working moms. I often hear men and women in the middle or near the end of their careers, saying similar things. Here’s the lament I most frequently hear:
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
“I’m tired all the time.”
Why are so many of us so stressed out anyway?
The most obvious answer is that more is expected from us at work. As organizations downsize and cut corners, those of us who still have our jobs have more to do, less resources to do it with, and less time to do it in.
Surprisingly, researchers are also attributing chronic stress and overwork to too much choice and affluence. This is an ironic statement, considering that most of us who are stressed out including the people quoted above would claim that our problem is lack of choice — too many demands and not enough time to do it all.
But researchers say that the choice factor is more nuanced than that. Let’s look again at how that young working mother framed her dilemma, “It appears to people that I’m together and have it all, but I know I don’t. I think this whole myth that you can have a job, have a deep relationship with your children, and have a great relationship with your partner… [is] just bull.”
She and others expected her to be able to “have it all” — to be able to freely partake from a bountiful cafeteria of delicious options on how to spend her time. Yet instead, she finds that her time is imperfectly divided among her job, kids, and partner so she has to constantly make tradeoffs. Viewed this way, the dilemma she is experiencing stems from too much choice, not insufficient choice.
The researchers explain it this way: In developed countries, those who are more affluent have greater choices of what goods to buy and activities to engage in. Because people want to make the best choice, they have a harder time choosing from among all those options and they view mistakes as more costly. Further, choosing one thing over the others often leads to regret about what was rejected. If I spend more time on my job and less time with my partner, I may regret the time lost with my partner. My stress and anxiety escalates.
People’s ability to adapt to what they have also comes into play. People are happy when they first get that new car or refrigerator, but eventually they get used to them and end up wanting more and more and more. The push for more-more-more means that people believe they have to work longer and harder to purchase all these new things that they now want. But working more and longer to buy things means less leisure time in which to actually enjoy them. The predictable result is the feeling of not having enough time to do what we want to do and increased stress.
What can be done about it?
In case you are wondering, I do*not* believe the solution for most of us is to turn over all our decisions to someone else or to take a vow of poverty. That’s the equivalent of jumping out of the frying pan into a locked freezer, replacing one form of misery for another. Rather, there are other more feasible solutions for us as individuals.
Organizations, too, stand to gain by addressing the problem, since overwork and stress leads to poor decision-making, decreased innovation, increased health costs, and dissatisfied customers. In other words, this is another example of a private trouble reflecting a public issue.
In the next two postings, I will talk about the individual solution and the organizational solution.
Meanwhile, here are some questions.
- Are you subject to overwork and chronic stress? If so, do people talk openly about this in your workplace or is it an undiscussable?
- How does your work affect your physical health and sense of wellbeing? What, if anything, are you doing about it?
- Do you worry about making the wrong decisions as to where to put your time?
- Do you think it’s possible for your organization to pay more attention to employees’ happiness and still produce results?
- Do you see a way to promote increased employee wellbeing within your sphere of influence?
Ng, W., Diener, E., Aurora, R., & Harter, J. (2009). Affluence, Feelings of Stress, and Well-being. Social Indicators Research, 94(2), 257-271.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: why more is less (1st ed.). New York: Ecco.
Mick, D. G., Broniarczyk, S. M., & Haidt, J. (2004). Choose, Choose, Choose, Choose, Choose, Choose, Choose: Emerging and Prospective Research on the Deleterious Effects of Living in Consumer Hyperchoice. Journal of Business Ethics, 52(2), 207-211.
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