Days of our lives Featured

10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

In what it calls the most comprehensive national survey of its kind, the Families and Work Institute claims to proven what employees have been complaining about for years-Americans are working harder, long hours at a faster pace than a generation ago.

The New York-based non-profit research group interviewed 3,551 people, 2,877 of them wage or salary workers, for its "National Study of the Changing Workforce." Surveyors asked employees about numbers of paid and unpaid hours worked; frequency of bringing work home, and of being required to work overtime with little or no notice; comparison of regular daytime shifts with other schedules; number of nights required away from home within the previous three months, and other statistics. Respondents were also queried using a measure of perceived job pressure developed at the University of Michigan with funding from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Virtually every measure showed increases compared with similar studies by the institute taken in 1977 and 1992. "People describe their work as much more demanding than 20 years ago," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. Paid and unpaid labor time for men and women working more than 20 hours a week grew from 43.6 hours per week in 1977 to 47.1 hours in 1997. One in three employees brought work home at least once a week in 1997, up 10 percent from 1977.

Subjective measures also showed employees believe they're working harder. In 1977, 55 percent of those surveyed said their jobs require that they work "very fast"; by 1997, that figure had grown to 68 percent. In 1977, 70 percent said they worked "very hard"; by 1997, 88 percent agreed with that statement. Sixty percent said they didn't have enough time to do all their required work in 1997, up from 40 percent in 1977.

The institute's findings have been greeted with skepticism in some quarters. "Whenever you hear a blanket statement that we're working harder than in previous generations, it should always raise a red flag," says John A. Challenger, executive vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the international outplacement firm that tracks workforce trends. Changes in the types of work done from generation to generation and in the intensity of labor make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult, Challenger contends. "It's hard to figure out if Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have actually hit the same number of home runs in the same way as Babe Ruth or Roger Maris."

Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Washington, says, "There's little doubt that people are busier than they used to be, but that's not necessarily the same as working harder." The rise of two-earner households has reduced home and leisure time, he notes, while non-labor activities such as commuting time and family demands have increased or been divided more equally (household chores, child care and such). "All of these have combined to make people feel busier and that they are working longer hours, when technically they are not," Bartlett says. "It's the lack of flexibility that's frustrating to employees, as much as the number of hours worked."

But Galinsky stands by her researchers' results. Subjective standards like the University of Michigan job-pressure measure took a back seat to statistics expressed in hours and weeks. Moreover, she notes, other studies have shown perceived work pressures can result in increased real stress, anxiety, health problems and complications.

Galinsky attributes the increased workplace pressures to the 24-hour rapid-response global economy, new technologies such as laptop computers and cellular phones that allow employees to take their work wherever they go, and corporate downsizing, in which "the work didn't go away, there were just fewer people to do it."

"I think this is the frontier issue of the workplace," Galinsky says, and "I don't think people have begun to deal with it yet." In fact, Bartlett and Challenger say, employers have begun to deal with it, by introducing flexible work schedules, child- and elder-care programs, one-time bonuses when pay raises aren't feasible, and other innovative programs.

"We're in that in-between phase when people are adjusting from the old rules into the new rules, and are perhaps getting the worst of both worlds," Bartlett says. Challenger believes smaller companies have some advantages during this transition because they "can create much more rapport and whole-company togetherness." He adds: "You try to counteract the extra stress [by] creating extra comfort, satisfaction, camaraderie."