Overworked in NA

Published: Oct 10, 2006

By Sheng Wang

Four weeks of paid vacation time and 11 public holidays a year! Sound like great job perks? It's just the norm for workers in the European Union. Throughout the past 30 years, Europeans have cut down on working hours in favor of more leisure time, while North Americans have done the exact opposite. From an early age, we're taught that the way to get ahead in life is to work harder and work more. The fear of layoffs pushes some employees to put in excessively long hours just to keep their pay checks, while others do it because that's simply part of the job. We work more because we see it as normal. Additionally, instead of giving us more freedom, technological innovations like Blackberries, cell phones, and home-office computer networks have formed an umbilical cord that ties us to the workplace even after we step out the door. But study after study has shown that stress, lack of sleep, and the difficulty of juggling work and family commitments all hamper employee productivity.

The advice that's offered for dealing with workplace stress ranges from aromatherapy to yoga, but unless an employee becomes so burnt out or so ill that they can no longer do their job properly, few people suggest the obvious solution of working fewer hours. Many people struggle to find enough time and energy for both a rewarding career and fulfilling personal life and, if they can't manage both, blame themselves – not their work hours.

Of course, it's pretty difficult to demand more leisure time if nobody else (especially your boss) shares your views. We're all justifiably afraid of seeming less dedicated than our coworkers, of being the only person who's unwilling to put in overtime, of missing a raise, or losing a job.

So instead of speaking up, workers quietly rebel by surfing the internet during work hours and calling in "sick" on summer days. An August 2006 Reuters news article reported that American employees "spend an average of 1.86 hours per eight-hour workday on something other than their jobs." Bosses may be justifiably outraged at this news, but the number one reason employees gave for slacking off was that they didn't have enough work to do! So if workers can waste a quarter of their day and still accomplish all their tasks, then why not give them more time off in the first place?

For our work schedule to resemble that of Western Europe would demand a vast change in attitude. Moreover, given the problems in the European economy, particularly seen in light of the challenges of globalization, outright imitation is not desirable. What we need is something between the current North American madness and the more relaxed European mode. We need workers to unite to convince employers that they can do the same amount of work in less time (and then accomplish this). And we need employers to see employees as people with lives, not as perpetual motion machines.

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