DENVER — A new survey confirms what many employees probably already know; people are working longer hours than they used to. Sixty-seven percent of American workers say their organization's employees are spending "a great deal" more hours at work than they were back in 2008.
"There are a lot of reasons for this," says Mary Haskins, a regional vice president with Right Management in Denver, a talent and career management firm, which conducted the survey. "Since the 2008 economic crash, organizations have become much flatter; they've taken out a lot of layers — and organizations are forced to produce more results with less resources."
And producing more often means working longer hours.
The survey found that an additional 10 percent of workers say they are working "somewhat" more than five years ago while less than a quarter (23 percent) say they are "not really" working longer hours.
Consultant and author Tony Schwartz, in a popular Harvard Business Review article, says working longer hours may not even be the solution to handling an increased workload. He contrasts a hypothetical "Bill" who works without stopping with a hypothetical co-worker, "Nick," who works intensely but takes breaks and even takes a nap. Bill averages 60 percent of his capacity over 10 hours — meaning that he really only "worked" 6 hours. Nick takes 2 hours of breaks, but because he worked harder in those other times with higher capacity, he "worked" 6½ hours total while feeling better and happier.
"It's not just the number of hours we sit at a desk that determines the value we generate," Schwartz writes. "It's the energy we bring to the hours we work. Human beings are designed to pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy. That's how we operate at our best. Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy — physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually — requires refueling it intermittently."
Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international economic organization based in Paris, finds that on average, Americans worked fewer hours than five years ago. This data, unlike the Right Management survey, is taking all workers — part and full time — and dividing the total amount of hours reported against the number of workers, so it more accurately reflects the number of people going part-time than how many extra hours full-time workers are now putting in. From 2008, it showed that Americans averaged 1,792 hours of work per year (an average of 34 hours a week). In 2007, in the wake of the beginning of the recession, the average dropped to 1,767 hours of work per year. The latest 2012 data places it at 1,790 hours per year.
These data points may not show how much longer those with full-time jobs may be working, but it does provide a good comparison between countries where workers in the Netherlands average 26.6 hours per week and workers in Mexico average 42.8 hours of work per week.
But, for those workers trying to meet heavier demands, just how many longer hours can they take?
"That's the million dollar question," Haskins says. "Employees have to make sure they are communicating with managers about the volume of work they can sustain in the long term."
She says managers need to watch for signs of overload — things like employees consistently missing deadlines, increases in illness, disengagement and so forth.
"Consistent long hours is not realistic nor sustainable," she says. Employees will move to organizations where they see more efficient uses of resources and technology to help them do their jobs.
But even getting a new job may not reduce the number of hours people are working.
In several of its surveys, Right Management, a part of ManpowerGroup, a human resource firm based in Milwaukee, finds that employees are not using their vacation time, the majority are eating lunch at their desks and there is a high number of disengaged and unhappy workers, Haskins says.
As the economy improves, however, employees may get restless if longer hours are the measuring stick.
"As the market and economy changes, a couple of things may happen," Haskins says. "Employees are not going to take these conditions any longer. Organizations will need to make additional enhancements or solutions will need to be implemented to reduce how much time each employee will have to spend at work."
And if those hours can't be reduced, Haskins says companies can try doing things such as concierge services, day care, providing breakfast and so forth just to make it a little easier to be there.
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