Home > Personal Finance > Why We Labor on Labor Day: The End of the 40-Hour Work Week

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Once upon a time, Labor Day was a chance to take a break, and to honor those who fought to create the proper work-life balance.

Sounds like a fairy tale now. For many Americans, Monday was just another day to labor — if not at an office or factory, through a mobile phone or laptop while at the beach, or during the family barbecue. It took labor unions more than 100 years to fight for nights and weekends off; smartphones have taken them away in less than five years.

Another new survey shows that Americans aren’t unplugging and they aren’t resting, even during three-day weekends. The latest research, an online survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Silicon Valley tech startup Jive Software, showed that 90 percent of Americans say they work during non-working hours. More than one-third of Americans (37 percent) say they work more than 10 hours a week during personal time; fewer than half that number devote that much personal time to work in Great Britain.

The results, while self-reported, are consistent with study after study that show Americans are tethered to work by technology and can’t seem to break free. Oft-quoted data claims that average Americans put in 35 hours weekly in 1970, but 46 hours today, and that U.S. employees work 376 hours more annually than their German counterparts.

Average Hours Worked, U.S. vs. Germany

The Overworked American

Nailing down accurate overworked data is notoriously difficult — much of the popular data, such as the Jive survey, is self-reported, and workers are certainly prone exaggerate their hours.

Official Department of Labor statistics are less persuasive, showing worker hours during the past several decades are relatively flat, and some Federal Reserve data suggests worker hours are actually down slightly in recent years. Official data undercounts the overworked effect, however. It is skewed by a sharp rise in “involuntary” part-time work — in July, there were 8.6 million such workers, twice as many as 2006 — and doesn’t reflect the two-income phenomenon.

Recently, the St. Louis Fed released a nifty tool which puts the dreadful U.S. overwork phenomenon in clear view, however. Mapping U.S. hours worked vs. various European nations since 1950, it’s obvious that Americans are getting the short end of the stick and burning the wrong end of the candle. Beginning in the 1980s, U.S. worker hours began soaring past those in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and really any other first-world nation.

Vacation policies and social norms certainly have a lot to do with this. In the U.S., paid vacation is not required, and most workers get only two or three weeks. In Germany, four weeks is the minimum required by law. Perhaps more important, it’s customary for many Germans to take two or three week trips in August, effectively shutting down entire industries — and clearing the way for no-guilt vacations. In America, meanwhile, only 57 percent of U.S. workers even take all the vacation they’re entitled too.

Even those who are skeptical of the overworked American concept — and they do have a point, when U.S. workers are compared to factory workers in Asia or farm workers in Latin America — can’t deny the role technology has played in blurring the lines between work and home. The Internet, and particularly the rise of the smartphone, has made true separation from the office a near-impossibility. This phenomenon has sometimes been called “the Great Speed-Up,” as workers simply can’t seem to jump off the digital rat-wheel. The effect has shown up in government data, which indicates that 35 percent of Americans worked on weekends in 2011. It’s even more obvious in smartphone surveys. Users check their e-mail 150 times every day, according to industry research. Workers recently told researchers that 50 percent are expected to check their e-mail on weekends, and 34 percent while on vacation.

Taking a “Tech Sabbath”

It’s hard not to see that phenomenon through the eyes of the recession and slow labor recovery — workers who see the rise of part-time hiring are well aware they are disposable, and many are in no position to say “no” to a boss demanding weekend work.  But not everyone wants to blame technology or the economy for American workers’ bad balance. Laura Vanderkam, in her ebook, “What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekends,” argues that many workers simply lack the self-discipline needed to take a break. Workers sending e-mails to each other on nights and weekends simply create a dog-chasing-its-tail phenomenon, and that much of the work could wait.

Meanwhile, numerous organizations have sprung up with the goal of saving U.S. workers from themselves, pushing concepts like a “Tech Sabbath,” or “Digital Detox.” An organization called Reboot organizes an annual National Day of Unplugging; Take Back Your Time has an annual “Take Back Your Time Day.”

The benefits of rest are well documented, and research demonstrating the effectiveness of a 40-hour-work week goes back 100 years, to Henry Ford’s initial implementation.  Things people learn when tired are forgotten, as demonstrated by cramming college students everywhere.  Work done when fatigued is poor. Meanwhile, the list of horrible health consequences among overworked people is scary to read.  Here’s a quick summary of research, from the American Journal of Epidemiology:

  • “Long working hours have been found to be associated with cardiovascular and immunologic reactions, reduced sleep duration, unhealthy lifestyle, and adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, subjective health complaints, fatigue, and depression.”
  • “There is increasing evidence to suggest the importance of midlife risk factors for later dementia. Furthermore, the link between cognitive impairment and later life dementia is clearly established.”
  • “A cross-sectional study of 248 automotive workers found an association between overtime work and impaired performance on tests of attention and executive function … For example, deterioration in cognitive performance, including impaired grammatical reasoning and alertness, has been found in post versus pretest conditions among employees working 9- to 12-hour shifts compared with a traditional 8-hour shift.”

In other words, if you worked this weekend — even if you simply checked your smartphone while gnawing on corn-on-the-cob — you put your health at risk, not to mention your relationship, for no good reason.

It’s time to take the labor out of Labor Day, and most other nights and weekends, technology be damned.

Image: iStockphoto

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