Feeling Overworked? Well who isn’t?

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A little fodder for those grumbling at the water cooler. The Families and Work Institute just put out a new report (pdf) entitled “Overwork in America” that deserves a bit of discussion. The crucial findings: 44 percent of Americans are overworked using at least one of three different measures, and those overworked employees have, on average, poorer health and higher rates of clinical depression, both of which help to drive up health care costs, as you’d expect. In other words, it’s a real problem. Paradoxically, it’s the fact that workers have become so darn adept at navigating the 21st century economy that’s to blame here:

For those with too much to do, the Overwork in America study found that the very skills that are fundamental to succeeding in the global economy—specifically, moving quickly from task to task with little time for recovery in between, facing many interruptions, and working outside normal work hours, including vacations—can be useful but also can become detrimental. For a significant group of Americans, the way we work today appears to be negatively affecting their health and effectiveness at work.

The price of competence, you could say. As it turns out, though, it’s difficult to figure out how, exactly, to reverse these trends. The Institute found that longer vacations usually don’t translate into feeling less overworked, although it does help if employees spend most of their vacation relaxing and enjoying themselves, rather than keeping their thumbs mashed on the ol’ Blackberry. (Incidentally, employees here in the United States don’t get very much quality vacation: only 14 percent of workers took two weeks or more for their longest break.) On the more helpful side, the report suggests creating “more effective workplaces”—wherein employees have opportunities to continue learning, can feel as if they’re succeeding, have the flexibility to juggle job and family life, etc. That’s a bit vague, but supposedly doing this sort of stuff in the right amounts helps decrease overwork.

Okay. Then there’s a broader question to ask here, namely: “What price growth?” America is often lauded for its supercharged GDP, especially in comparison to some of our more welfare-heavy, vacation-loving European peers, but perhaps it’s time to re-examine this assumption. For one, the usual comparisons are a bit misleading: European GDP growth per capita has been roughly the same as that in the U.S over the last decade—1.8 percent per year in the U.S., 1.7 percent in the EU15. (Indeed, if you exclude Germany, which has had a number of reunification-related problems, it becomes a very fair match.)

Nevertheless, the Francophobes have it partly right: Income per capita in Europe remains at about 70 percent of the U.S. average. But this isn’t because Europeans are less productive—in fact, they’re nearly as productive per hour as Americans—but simply because they work fewer hours and take longer vacations. And no, this isn’t because crushing European tax rates discourage work; see economist Olivier Blanchard’s study on the subject. It’s the result of a conscious choice, trading off some private goods for fewer hours worked. Europeans end up working about 40 percent fewer hours over their lifetime than we do. Now there’s no one correct way to decide whether we in the United States ought to choose more free time or more stuff, but the Overwork in America report lays out the case that the cost of working more and more hours can be quite high indeed. One more reason to think the fetishization of growth above all else may be the wrong way to think about things.

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