Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2006: Time Crunch

From 2005 to 2007 I wrote for Tucson Business Edge, a monthly supplement to the late Tucson Citizen. Mostly these were profiles of business owners, but occasionally I was assigned a longer piece. Not all of them need to be preserved here, but this one seems to bring up some interesting issues. It's pretty long because of the OTOH/OTOH journalistic conventions, but if you're underemployed, maybe you've got time to read it.

What if you came home from work on October 24th and took the rest of the year off? Suppose you just unplugged from the office, turned off the cellphone, and spent time with your family until after New Year’s Day. If you did that, you’d be enjoying the same amount of time off every year as the average European worker.

“The Europeans average about six weeks vacation,” says Deborah Figart, a professor at Stockton College in New Jersey. “And in the United States, if you’re on the job long enough – which is typically two to three years – the average is about two weeks.”

In a nutshell,” says Figart, “the Japanese used to be the workaholics of the world, and the data and studies are showing that in the United States, now we are the workaholics of the world. And families are having a very difficult time, trying to balance work and family and all the demands. And folks are cutting their vacations short, and they’re taking their cellphones with them, and they’re working out of their cars. And it’s becoming a nation of workaholics, the United States.”

“It’s a problem of time poverty,” says Seattle TV producer John de Graaf, who is national coordinator for a nonprofit called Take Back Your Time (TBYT). “We decided that we wanted to call people’s attention to that. We felt that people already knew that they were rushed and out of time, but not knowing what they could do about it.”

“So we thought about having a day that would bring that to the public’s attention,” de Graaf explains, “kind of like Earth Day brought the environment to public attention. So we came up with the concept of Take Back Your Time Day, and set the date as October 24th, because it falls nine weeks before the end of the year. That symbolizes the nine full weeks in total working hours that Americans work more each year compared to western Europeans.”

“There are huge consequences in many areas of our lives, with family, health, stress,” notes Gretchen Burger, a spokesperson for TBYT. “We have high rates of heart disease and obesity, and certainly high rates of depression. It interferes with people’s ability to be involved with their community, with their faith communities. And it certainly has an impact on our civic life; the time that we have to learn about the issues, let alone go and vote.”

Furthermore, explains Burger, overwork is bad for the bottom line “Businesses lose something like $300 billion a year due to stress, burnout, and turnover. And studies have shown that working over forty hours a week, productivity goes down.”

“We’ve done so many studies in companies, regarding these issues,” says Bonnie Michaels, a Chicago consultant on work/life issues.” It’s really been proven that you do burn out, and you get sicker more often. The stress level is high, which means you’re not really thinking on a creative level. When you’re stressed out, you don’t communicate well, you don’t negotiate well. There isn’t that flexibility or give and take with co-workers, or ideas, and things like that.”

Overstressed workers can lead to high rates of turnover and absenteeism. But de Graaf notes a corollary problem: “We suffer more, as businesses and as a society, from ‘presenteeism,’ which is the people who are coming in sick. And who do lower productivity as a result, who stay sick longer, who get fellow employees sick, who further tax the medical system, and that costs. Unhealthy workers end up costing businesses, and certainly costing all of us, as a society.”

Pamela Freeman, director of Human Resources for CyraCom, inc., sees it differently. The Tucson-based company won a Workplace Excellence award in 2005. “We combine [sick leave and vacation] hours, but we also try to give enough time that we feel like people can balance both,” says Freeman. “With our PTO, or leave, an employee in their first year earns well over two weeks of time off. So there’s enough time to kind of be able to balance both. Sick, vacation, personal needs, all of those. And we purposely have one bank, because not everybody is the same. You have people that never get sick, never miss a day of work; they end up with these sick days they can’t use. You have people that need to be encouraged to take personal time, take some vacation time, and they may not. So we try to bank it in one so that people can fit the needs of their world.”

“I’m 55, and I knew a time when there was time,” says Maureen Wilt, who teaches at Central Missouri State University. “And some people, this is all they’ve ever known. I think a good analogy is that if you don’t live in California, and you go out there and see the smog, you’re really surprised by it, but if you live there every day, you just get used to it. For a lot of my students, this is all they’ve ever known, and so it doesn’t seem all that unusual to them.”

Wilt wrote a recent article called “The Cost Of Working Yourself To Death Is Dangerous To Your Health.” She says that while researching the piece, “I found out a lot of things: that when you don’t get more than five hours of sleep, three nights a week, your risk of heart attacks goes up so much. It’s kind of scary reading how much it goes up from just lack of sleep.”

Wilt found severe consequences for the exhaustion common in the medical profession. “Even moderate sleep deprivation caused impairment equal to or greater than being legally intoxicated. The President of the American Medical Student Association, found a study where six out of seven residents fell asleep while driving. It’s taken us decades,” she says, “to question the wisdom of having residents who average more than 110 hours per week. They operate with a degree of impairment greater than or equal to a 0.1 blood alcohol level.”

Figart notes that while Americans are working longer hours, their productivity gains in recent decades have not kept pace with earnings. “In the first part of the 20th Century, we used to take advantage of productivity gains by gradually shortening the work week, and increasing real income. And in the last forty years we have not been increasing real income, as much as in the first part of the 20th Century, and the workweek has crept up again. Productivity gains, in some sectors, are going to the shareholders. And workers have less real money; less money per hour, after inflation. Now there was a little uptick, in the past year or two, in real wages. But compared to the immediate post-World War II period, and the 1960s, it really was a very small uptick. And if you look at an average working family’s debt load, it’s not really a little uptick, because of the large increases in household debt, and debt burden.”

Burger explains that while productivity numbers have risen, they correlate with rising work hours. “The US has the highest PDT, but people are not more productive per hour; it’s over the whole year. Whereas the Europeans and the French in particular, have proven that they have a much higher productivity per hour than we do. And I think the big question is, what are we doing this for? If the benefits from having the highest PDT aren’t about having time for our health, and time for family, and time for beauty and other things, in addition to having work that we care about, then what are we doing this for?”

De Graaf says that TBYT has worked out a legislative agenda to address these issues, in hopes of creating a level playing field with workers in other industrialized countries. “We think what’s in it for the business community is happier, more motivated workers. We have a six-point plan that we call our Time to Care Agenda. Among the key issues that we’re concerned with are some kind of paid family leave. We think that there needs to be a paid version of the Family and Medical Leave Act, because only about forty percent of Americans who have children are able to take advantage of that Act.”

“Secondly,” explains de Graaf, “we think that there should be some kind of guaranteed sick leave for all Americans. Way too many Americans are coming to work sick, getting other people sick. And they’re doing that, in many cases, because they don’t have any kind of paid sick leave.”

“We also believe that Americans should have some guaranteed vacation time. We’re alone among industrial countries in that regard, and also in the cases of sick leave and family leave. We’re advocating some kind of upper limit on compulsory overtime. That would put us in line with, again, virtually every other industrialized country, which has a 48 hour limit.”

“We also favor what we would call part-time parity. That would really allow people to choose to go down to part-time or to work a few less hours, and to have their benefits pro-rated and keep their hourly salaries. And this is a law that will be Europe-wide as of 2006.”

“Finally,” he concludes, “and more superficially, we advocate an Election Day holiday, to call attention to the need for time to participate in the community, and civic and political life.”

John Dougherty, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, adamantly disagrees with de Graaf’s agenda. “The Chamber would not be in support of that. You should let the free market be the free market, and let the workers and employers decide what’s best for both of them. The mandates that this group wants to require, such as paid family leave, a minimum number of vacation days, are certainly not the path that business needs to take. Right now there’s a tremendous labor shortage, throughout the country, particularly here in Southern Arizona. And to throw these mandates on top of that kind of a situation would reduce productivity and reduce job creation. It would reduce expansion. It could very well lead to job loss.”

“If the government tells you that you have to give your workers six weeks off,” Dougherty continues, “that’s going to seriously eat into your productivity. And the first thing that a business does when looking at costs and expenses is look at labor. That’s the most expensive part of any business. And they will look to cut jobs if given a mandate of a minimum number of vacation days that they must give their workers, which I think the federal government–or any government– should not be in the business of doing.”

CyraCom’s Freeman questions whether lack of time off is the only factor in workplace stress. “I’m going to tell you very honestly that, based on what I see here in our workplace, I don’t know that leave policies are the only answer or the answer,” she explains. “I think our goal here at CyraCom is to create a culture and environment where people enjoy their job. And we do that through, one, just a passion for what we do, a service we really believe in – that’s providing translation for our hospital clients.”

“I think if your job is fulfilling,” says Freeman, “and you have a purpose, and there’s a reason and you understand what’s going on, and you’re involved in the decisions that are made in the company and with your job – then your life may be stressed, but a least you have a place where you feel like you have input. You feel kind of safe and comfortable. That’s what we really strive for.”

“We do a lot to keep communication open,” Freeman continues.” That’s a big piece of it; encouraging employees to let us know what is going on. Ask questions, give answers, provide a lot of information. A lot of times, especially in the workplace, people have a tendency to get stressed over the unknown, or stressed over ‘what-ifs.’ And we purposely keep the communication lines really open. Of course we do have leave policies, but again, that’s not the number one thing I see, as far as helping people in the workplace with stress.”

Judy Ferrigno, HR Officer for CARF International, says that leave policies are not the only way to reduce worker stress. “Employee assistance programs,” she explains, “help people deal with things that are bigger than just the average ‘how do I live my normal life’ kind of thing. The Wellness Council of Arizona is a great resource here for us in Tucson and in Arizona, and there’s a two-page list of one-hours sessions that they offer. And they do that free for members. Everything from ‘Stress Release Through Breathing’ to managing change, to fitness. I think there are a lot of community resources available as well.”

Ferrigno is also skeptical about implementing European-style leave policies in his country. “I think what people miss in the equation,” she says, “when they talk about, ‘Gee, people in Europe get much more time off,’ is that it’s a totally different economic base, tax base. It’s real easy to say that I want the best of all possible worlds, but I would be willing to bet that they haven’t thought through the tax factor in all this. The kind of tax rates that people pay over there for the kind of more–not good or bad–but different, much more socialistic work environment that Europeans work in.”

Chris Ortiz, a manufacturing consultant based in North Carolina, has seen dramatic changes when companies offer more flexible work options. “When I interviewed people for my department, I tried to weed out what I thought were the workaholics. The reason for that is, to have a work-life balance in the department, you can’t have individuals in the group that are saying things like, ‘Oh, you’re leaving already.’ Or ‘I was in here this weekend. I was in here on Saturday.’ It creates an imbalance, within the group or organization, and you kind of lose focus on what you’re doing. People are more concerned about just being in the building just to be seen. So I try to create a workplace environment where people are able to express themselves, go about their day as they need to, as long as they produce the result that we need in that department.”

Ortiz, who designs assembly lines for manufacturing companies, favors the agenda advocated by TBYT. “One of the things this public agenda is going to do, is that you’re going to reduce turnover and absenteeism in your company. For instance, when I developed these different rules in my department, I had the lowest turnover and absenteeism in the corporation. Not just within our company, but within the corporation itself. And we met or exceeded or expectations every quarter. And it wasn’t because of working people more hours. And every quarter that came by, I always raised the bar on my department. But it didn’t mean more hours, and it didn’t mean a ridiculous workload. It meant that I provided high expectations for them, but I provided proper training, incentives, and mentoring, so they could get to that level.”

Michaels also feels that unplugging from work is not just a good idea, but a necessity. “There are many ways to look at your job, and your life, and make a commitment to the fact that you are going to find time to leave work at a normal hour several times a week,” she explains. “And really work towards that end, by scheduling differently, letting people know that you’re not going to be available at four or five o’clock. Some very basic things.”

“People are very afraid to say no, because of the fear that they won’t like me, or I could lose my job, or I won’t be a team player,” says Michaels. “But in reality, almost everybody wants to say no. And if you begin some kind of a process, where people see that you’re taking a stand on this, and work together with the team so that everybody can get their time, I think it’s possible to get chunks of time. And once you feel empowered, just a little bit, if you get to go home on time, you’ll feel really excited. That in itself is a renewal factor, to make you feel physically better, and not so stressed out.”

Wilt agrees that people need to take control of their schedules. “But then there has to be a movement to do something about it, because there are a lot of health benefits. I think that employees would see that it would benefit them right off the bat. There’s that old quote: If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?”

Judy Lowe, of Tucson’s Realty Executives, may have found the answer. “I am extremely busy,” she says. “I’m the Operating Officer for Realty Executives Southern Arizona. I’m the President of the Tucson Association of Realtors Multiple Listings Service. I’m the President of the Arizona Realtors Housing Needs Foundation, as well as being as active as I can within our community. I’m a grandmother of four grandchildren and the mother of three sons. I usually work about twelve to fourteen hours a day, including my community involvement. And my weekends are my special time for me to be with my family.”

“So I have to balance my work, my community and my family – and myself,” Lowe explains. “How do I do that? How do I balance that in such a way that it keeps me appearing to be fairly even-keeled? I do get up very early in the morning; I’m usually up by 4:30. And I make it a point every morning to spend time with myself. With my cup of coffee and myself. So I usually get 30 to 45 minutes to just relate to myself, to my spirituality, to my own thoughts. Don’t really do anything prescribed. And then I spend about fifteen minutes trying to review yesterday, review what’s on the agenda for today. And to leave myself open – this is going to sound a little hoogie-boogie – to be touched by those individuals in my life that may need a little bit of attention. And they just kind of come to me in my thoughts, or I reach out and send a thought their way. But that takes my next fifteen minutes, and then I’m ready for the day.”

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