It’s Labor Day. Hit the beach, fire up the grill or go shopping. But maybe you have to check into work, answer a few e-mails or just get ahead in the week. With mobile devices, you can do it all without going to the office. But wait… why does it feel like you’re working more?
Because you are.
The eight-hour workday was supposed to bring us a better work-life balance — eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will. During the Industrial Revolution, labor conditions often meant brutal, long hours, in dangerous factories among child labor. And according to PBS, the manufacturing worker, on average, worked about 100 hours a week — 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week — without breaks for rest or meals.
Then, in the 1870s, activists and workers, increasingly upset with harsh working conditions, began to organize large-scale labor strikes across the U.S. At rallies and parades, the central tenet and battle cry for basic worker rights became the concept of the eight-hour workday, which culminated in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — complete with a minimum wage, overtime pay and record-keeping.
But a scant 50 years later, at some companies, the eight-hour workday is dead, eroded by technology and a bygone notion of a distant time.
“When everyone started carrying their own communication and telecommunications on their bodies, the boundaries between work and life collapsed,” Rick Segal, president of Gyro, a global advertising agency, told USA Today.
Emergency room doctors aren’t the only ones on-call, today, so are teachers, engineers, office workers — basically, anyone with a work phone. Few can “call it a day” thanks to a domino effect: if one person replies the boss’s e-mail after hours, others feel compelled to do the same. The result is an “always-on” corporate culture that often leaves employees with little time to rest.
According to Accenture, 70 percent of respondents said technology actually brings work into their personal lives. So it’s common to receive a work-related call at midnight or be woken up by an e-mail before dawn. Technology is blending our professional and personal lives, and its promise of allowing us to do more in less time adds stress to the work grind.
Several factors lengthen the workday: a global economy plays a key role, of course, but rise of mobile devices has dovetailed with a longer, more demanding workplace, and employers are treating them as a constant line to workers, so staying on-call has become the norm and not the exception.
Four years after Apple debuted the iPhone in 2007, according to the Mobile Workforce Project, one-in-four mobile workers reported getting fewer than six hours of sleep each night, with one-in-three claiming the cause was due to work. In 2011, a year after Apple unveiled the iPad, nearly two-thirds of employers said they had asked workers to put in more hours, with about half of management expecting the longer workday to continue for the next three years, according to human resource firm Towers Watson.
Those bosses acknowledged that employees not only worked more, but one-third also took fewer vacations and personal days off.
According an ABC News, Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world. Not only do we put in longer hours, we also take fewer vacations and retire later in life than those in England, France, Germany and even work-centric Japan. While, on average, we work a bit over 40 hours a week, in 1999, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, over 35 million workers still put in 50 to 60 hours a week. In fact, in the ’90s, the rise of mobile technology coincided with a similar surge of per-week hours worked.
Our personal time is taking the brunt of the squeeze in light of technology’s pressures, too. In 2011, the BLS reported that one-in-three Americans worked over the weekend, while two-thirds of us work on a smartphone or tablet, even on vacation, according to Accenture.
We’ve truly become a no-vacation nation.
“The reality of the society is that there are thousands and thousands of people leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like,” writes Nigel Marsh, author of “Fat, Forty, and Fired.”
Burnout and stress are serious quality-of-life issues that, if left unchecked, can contribute to long-term health concerns. It doesn’t cost much to squeeze in half an hour here or there, but we may pay for it tomorrow with flagging health, fragile relationships and a sense of “quiet desperation.”
Wired workers need the discipline to deal with the digital overload by disconnecting and interacting with real people and the natural world that surrounds them.
“It’s your responsibility to shut off the flood of information,” Martha Beck, a sociologist and life coach, told USA Today. “It’s not easy, but you have to set boundaries.”
For example, set up weekend out-of-office auto-responders, saying you won’t reply to messages until Monday, giving you the weekend to relax and recover. Or, schedule “buffer times” during the workday to help absorb unexpected delays or tie-up loose ends, allaying any guilt or sense of obligation to check-in during personal time.
“Commercial companies are designed to inherently get as much out of you as they can get away with,” Marsh said at Ted Talks. “It’s in their nature, it’s in their DNA, it’s what they do — even the good, well-intentioned companies.”
According to Towers Watson, some companies are changing policies to include more flexible schedules, on-site child care and better overall benefits, recognizing the need to remedy the growing burnout and give workers adequate rest to stay at productive in the long-run.
But how can you say no to the boss when he insists you answer work e-mail at midnight?
For that, Dan Thurmon, author of “Off Balance on Purpose,” believes new working conditions need new methods to finding balance — or in this case, learning to work in chaos.
“You will never achieve perfect balance,” he added. “The pursuit of balance, I think, is a negative impact on our lives.”
He advocates creating a lifestyle where you don’t feel like you’re choosing between life and work, by involving family with the office, and vice versa, to connect and sustain a healthy lifestyle.
“Balance books tell you to protect your time, compartmentalize your life, so that they don’t overlap, so that there’s not too much time in each area,” he said at Ted Talks. “There’s not enough time to do that, and [work and family] are constantly intersecting where it matters most — in your thinking, in your decisions.”
It’s not either-or; it’s all of the above.
As technology enhances our personal and working lives, we’re struggling to find ways to maximize that potential. In the 1900s, factories, skeptical of the eight-hour workday, eventually adopted more lenient conditions when they saw greater overall productivity. And, in the digital future, work and life will need to be readjusted, as well. ♦