Wednesday, June 13, 2012

All Work and No Play: Can American Workers Get Their Lives in Balance?

Last week was one of the most hectic I’ve had in quite a while. My PR agency, ThinkInk is on a growth tear: we opened an office on the West Coast on June 1st and we’re about to relaunch our website any moment now.  There was also a trade conference going on here last week and a sick daughter to take care of. I barely had a second to breathe – or sleep.

So I spent most of the weekend working to catch up, and to get ahead of the coming week. Amid the nonstop bustle, something jumped out at me - I was sending emails to both clients and employees throughout the entire weekend. And they responded immediately. Does anyone really have a life anymore?

An article on the Harvard Business School website got me thinking about the ongoing trend of Americans working more and more hours, either to keep up with the bills because their wages are stagnant or because they are afraid of being replaced if unwilling to be available for work at any time. Let’s face it, given the jobs crisis we’re battling, with widespread pay and benefit cuts, workers are doing more for less because they are terrified of losing their jobs. And their employers know it: squeezed employees mean bigger corporate profits. Add to that the slow, steady decline of the country’s organized-labor movement, and you’ve got millions of workers with fewer options.

Another (significant) factor that is making it more difficult to get away from the office, even while at home: our ubiquitous mobile devices.

The vast majority of us are carrying around at least one Internet-connected device at all times, and we are increasingly reluctant to be away from them. Think about it: how many times have you been off work, either on a weeknight, a weekend or holiday, and made a firm resolution to not check your work email or answer calls from the office only to break it because you just can’t stop yourself?

That’s what I thought. The same happens with me.

This isn’t good for us, people. Studies have shown that the more hours we put in beyond a normal workday, the more at risk we are for developing depression. Which makes sense: more time spent working – and worrying about work – means less time to spend with friends and lovers, less time to catch up on sleep and physically take care of ourselves and less time pursuing our other interests (if our jobs and families allow us time to have any!). European countries understand this.

We may need to have to start having more experiments like the one mentioned in the Harvard article. The researchers worked with teams of Boston Consulting Group employees to make sure they took periodic evenings off their mobile devices. Not surprisingly, the consultants ended up saying they were much happier with their work-life-balance and…drum roll, please…with their own job performance and that of their co-workers in the experiment.

This, of course, is kind of a no-brainer. We all know balance is important. It’s just a question of trying to work as much of it as possible into our lives. There will always be room for improvement.

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