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Rethinking 40 Hours a Week

Adnan Zai

Some believe Americans work too hard. Best-case scenario, we work 40 hours a week, but many people climbing the corporate ladder are averaging closer to 65-70. And that doesn’t even consider the millions of Americans who have to work that many hours in multiple jobs just to make ends meet! Europeans (and indeed the rest of the world) do a better job achieving work-life balance. From daily siestas and 30 vacation days a year in Spain, to a 30-hour work week in the Netherlands, Europeans understand that there is more to life than a job. So, what are we waiting for? Interestingly, the pandemic may have tipped the scales a bit, because once Americans spent more time at home, they realized they liked it! This is a good steppingstone for re-configuring a more palatable, life-giving work week.

Why the Balance Struggle?

Americans are simply burned out and (literally and figuratively) tired of working too hard. The Harvard Business Review found that employee burnout accounts for $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare spending. And “12% of employee turnover in 2018 was caused by a lack of work-life balance”, as reported by the Work Institute’s 2019 Retention Report.

To say that Americans are too obsessed with their jobs is not an exaggeration. Vox magazine has an interesting take on Americans and work, and especially the relationship between the two once the pandemic lock down began. Though everything else in life fell away, like dinner with friends, going to sporting events, watching movies, and the like, Americans kept on working. “America has treated work as a sacred object throughout this past year, as something that is valuable for its own sake: more valuable than the money with which it is meant to provide us, more valuable than contact with our loved ones, than our mental health, than our lives, than the lives of our neighbors. We have treated work as something to be taken home and cherished. Work is our lover. And this year, we took it to bed.”

Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, the total change in the American way of life has certainly offered clarity, and the emphasis of Americans on work is one element of life that has been in the spotlight. A study in 2011 by author Melissa Gregg published in Work’s Intimacy says that mobile technology like smartphones and laptops, along with Wi-Fi, makes American’s lives more work-centric. We can “check in at the office” any time of day or night, and that ease of access can really skew a person’s prioritized use of time. But now that “normal life” has imploded, Americans are re-thinking how much emphasis work should have in their lives, and turning to family, hobbies, and relaxing in place of the frantic work motif.

What Works Elsewhere

Most of the world does not work as hard as Americans do, and there are some innovative strategies that different countries implement so that workers get regular breaks and family time is respected. In Iceland, for instance, workers have a more life-giving workweek, which a large-scale study has recently borne out.

The Washington Post reported on the success of the four-day workweek experiment in Iceland, and the findings showed that the shorter workweek led to a more positive feeling for the workers, who experienced less stress and more balance.

“This study shows that the world’s largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success,” said Will Stronge, director of research at the think tank Autonomy, adding that the program serves as a “landmark pilot” that provides a “precedent for other public authorities.”

“This [reduction in hours] shows increased respect for the individual. That we are not just machines that just work… all day. Then sleep and get back to work. [But that] we are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies,” said one participant.

What Americans are Looking For

Ironically, one positive that has come out of the pandemic is the way Americans have started to think about the work week and the type of jobs they want to have and how they want a job to interact with their private life, not overtake it. Forbes Magazine said, “Some 48% of Americans are rethinking the type of job they want post-pandemic.” According to the research, “53% say they’d switch to an entirely new industry if they could retrain.” The Pulse of the American Worker survey put out by Prudential ascertained that 25% of workers have their eyes set on a new job after the pandemic. The three most important sticking points are compensation, work-life balance, and lack of growth opportunities in their current positions.

The landscape of American jobs has been changed forever by the pandemic. Economists and philosophers are speculating about the “Great Resignation,” a time when millions of Americans will quit their jobs in search of something better, especially if they cannot continue remote work or garner other perks. With all the people resigning, businesses who are looking for workers will be forced to offer more flexible schedules, remote and hybrid options, and four-day workweeks so that they can hire the most qualified talent for their companies.

As the old saying goes, Americans need to work smarter, not harder. There is more to life than a paycheck, and at the end of the day, all employees are expendable. You are not, however, expendable to your five-year-old child, your spouse, and your best friends. And with the world already on its head with the aftermath of the pandemic, this is a good time to re-think priorities and use of time in order to create a more balanced life with time for play, work, family, and fun.

Adnan Zai

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