Work In America


It is the new hot topic.

To my knowledge, each of us gets the same 24 hours in which to manage our lives, and yet we seem to act in business today as if we can stretch time in all directions by doing more, faster, while still seeking “work life balance.” We now call it an “integrated life.” The terms have changed but the phenomenon remains the same.

Brigid Shulte writes about it in Overwhelmed, How to Work, Love, and Play When No One has the Time. Others expound with solutions for managing the massive volume and pace of work and life:

Overwhelmed: Winning the War against Worryby Perry Noble

Overwhelmed: Coping with Life’s Ups and Downsby Nancy Schlossberg

Overworked and Overwhelmedby Scott Eblin

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being Wisdom, and Wonderby Ariana Huffington

I was daunted by the mere act of searching at the bookstore for a resource to help me cope with my own days that feel too packed full, too often. I have read many of these, recommended some to clients, and even put some of the tips and techniques into practice, searching for the “integrated life” professed by the authors – one in which I work hard, play hard and stay healthy and connected along the way.

In modern North American (especially) business culture, human beings are struggling to keep it all together. Women and minorities, in particular, are exiting traditional work settings to start their own businesses, or to become contractors, who set their own hours, working in their own way. Simultaneously the entering Millennials are accused of lacking work ethic because they want flexible hours, to work from home sometimes, and frequently choose their life itself over the demands their job may present. The United States falls woefully far behind many other countries in the amount of time off given annually, and ranks way ahead in the number of hours people put in at work week-to-week.

What is work coming to in American business?  Why are we so overwhelmed? And what can we do about it?

Do employers meet basic needs?

Clearly, the demands of work continue to increase as companies struggle to make the bottom-line work by doing more with less. But much like the question of “how fast can a human being really run the mile?” I wonder, “How much can human beings really work?” Basic human needs include food, water, shelter, safety, and belonging followed by other higher order needs such as meaningful contribution and self-actualization. Can we in American business work any more than we already do and still meet our most basic needs?  Some companies (Google, Facebook) have taken steps to actually meet their employees’ basic needs with benefits like housecleaning, laundry, shopping services, on-site medical care, and egg freezing to schedule parenting, but can companies ever suitably provide the unique needs of individuals to pursue love, connection, sleep, and intimacy?  Would we even want them to?

If the boundaries between our basic human needs and the companies we work for become so very thin that the majority of our needs are met at work, what happens to our communities and networks that exist outside of the work environment?

During the industrial revolution of the 18th Century, big companies owned entire towns where mills and factories were located. Employees lived and ate meals on-site; visiting their families for maybe one day a week of home cooked food and connection. Positioning work as the place where our basic human needs get met feels like a step backwards that we should be loath to take. Especially since corporations are unable to guarantee, promise, or even hint at the long-term relationship of old wherein retirement, pensions, and a guaranteed role for life were promises backed up by precedent.

24/7 access never allows “off”.

I love my iPhone. And iPad. And laptop. All three allow me to get more done, in more flexible and creative situations than ever before. I can check a client proposal from a Pony Club rally with my daughter. I can issue a memo from the coffee shop, balance a spreadsheet right before bed, and squeeze in a marketing piece review while I dress for a dinner date with my husband. But what is the impact of constant connectivity? Research is starting to clearly show that the results are poor for children and adults. We work in sound bites. The most common complaint I hear from leaders in organization is “I never have time to think deeply about a challenge.” We never turn off, so we are also not always fully turned on. In competitive sports, we know that recovery is key to building strength, but our American obsession with being always connected to work, weakens us over time, leaving thin limp thought trails that never get fully tended or enabled. We have anemic connections with people at home and work that are short; felling messages right and left as if we are warriors in a video game bouncing back little red discs. Constant connectivity does enable productivity at times, but it also erodes it irrevocably.

Families take back seat.

The on-going debate about gender roles at work (see Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic “Why Can’t Woman Have it All,” and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In) adds up to known strain on the American practice of family. Whether we are single parents, blended families, caring for aging parents, singles looking to mate, or edging close to retirement dreams, the gaping maw of demand and expectation at work drives human beings across the country to over-prioritize work tasks and relegate family and community to the B Tier.

We work hard to protect ourselves from sacrificing families on the alter of work but as evidenced by the themes of the afore mentioned books and resources, we seem to be failing miserably at actually doing so. From Silicon Valley, known for extreme entrepreneurial work addiction, to high finance with crazy hours in ivory towers, to double time pay for extra shifts in manufacturing, Americans work more hours every year, and report feeling compelled to pick work over family at worst, or at best, feel torn up inside about pressure they feel to pick work, above all else.

Contorted human beings consistently underperform.

Anyone in manufacturing knows that machines require maintenance. Down time, Cleaning. Lubrication. Parts replacement. People are not machines, and yet our approach to work here in the USA seems to come from the mental model that people can take it infinitely, with no maintenance, little scheduled downtime, and no rest.  As a result, people come to work contorted. Tired. Sick. Stressed. These kinds of employees cannot possibly perform on their “A” game, and yet companies far and wide act as if they expect them to.

Identity has become defined by work.

Even when I was a child, I remember my parents as having the work they did (Dad an architect and Mom a nurse) but also having hobbies and passions: art, fly fishing, horses, and music. In the course of my lifetime, I have noticed a trend where people increasingly over-identify with work to the exclusion of their essential humanity. What is it that makes our hearts sing?  What do we want inscribed on our headstones besides “She worked hard.” The recent recession worsened this trend as bank accounts decreased and citizens became afraid of losing comfort and convenience, jumping in to sacrificing more time to work and moving further away from their pleasures and passions.

In response to the voluminous writing about overwhelm, I for one, choose to defy the term for now.  Webster’s defines the term as to “bury or drown beneath a huge mass, or defeat completely.” I am not there yet.  Every day, like millions of Americans I get up energetically and optimistically believing that I can and will survive another one, contribute to good work, and find meaning for myself.  Nonetheless, I, like many of you, frequently fall into bed 12-16 hours later tarnished, defeated, and wondering where the rocks came from that I am pushing up hill.

Some say our overwhelm these days is the persistent anxiety of the modern age. Others say it is the result of the economic engine that demands of us ongoing effort to do more with less. Both may be true.  Either way, the feeling itself doesn’t help us perform better, and that costs our companies, or families, our communities, and yes our society, dearly. We can do better.

What do you think?

In a subsequent article, I will explore possible solutions to try to manage the feeling of overwhelm in your work, and how leaders can influence their organizations to help create a place where human beings bring their best work without the scepter of overwhelm.

Jim Morris