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December 18, 2001
Looking Long and Hard at Long Hours
Are
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we working too much?

The Christian Science Monitor reports that a crossfire of recent events has got Americans debating whether they need to stop working so hard or just keep their noses to grindstone.

Early this year, the trend seemed to run toward easing up. Workplace activists were blaming long work hours for weakening family ties an increased likelihood of work-related accidents, job burnout, and employee resentment.

A study released in May by the New York-based Families and Work Institute found that more than half of employees surveyed felt overworked at least some of the time in the previous three months. Of employees who admitted to experiencing high levels of overwork, 43 percent said they often felt angry toward their employers.

The Monitor notes that the sheer number of hours put in by Americans has earned the U.S. the dubious distinction of being the most overworked nation in the industrialized world. More than 25 million Americans work more than 49 hours each week. Of that number, 11 million spend 60 hours or more at work each week.

"I don't think (Americans) know how bad it's gotten because it's happened gradually, and gotten to be the norm," says Joe Robinson, who founded the Los Angeles-based Work to Live campaign, a nationwide, grass-roots movement that is calling on Congress to amend the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act so that every American who works at a job for at least a year would get three weeks of paid leave.

The recession and rising unemployment have not helped the situation, say workplace experts. "Downsizing has created more work for people who haven't been laid off, and many people are doing what's being called defensive overworking to try to save their jobs. We've taken our work ethic to the point where people are working around the clock and cannot stop," says Robinson.

But at the same time, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 have led many American workers to reprioritize the place work has in their lives. "More than ever, people are open to this message that there's something more to life than work," Robinson told the Monitor.

"In the 9/11 era, there's more introspection taking place," says Nancy Snow, an adjunct associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and associate director of the Center for Communications and Community at UCLA. "We're reexamining ourselves as a people, and a nation, and even reassessing where we should be going with our careers."

The idea that Americans are working themselves too hard - and for all the wrong reasons - has particularly resonated among workers between the ages of 16 and 25 - members of so-called "Generation Y," explains Snow.

"Young people are generally not as driven to overwork," she says. "Many of them are choosing to travel, and work less. There's the sense that they're not as defined by what they do for a living ... and they're getting their sense of belonging and identity from their social networks, not from their workplaces."

The Free Time/Free People campaign, launched last year by Rabbi Arthur Waskow's Shalom Center, has taken more of a spiritual approach in its call for more time off, according to the Monitor.

The campaign, which calls for an end to American overwork, also stresses the need for more free time for volunteer work, community involvement, and self-reflective spiritual growth. Plans are under way for a national, inter-religious conference for 2002, likely to be held in Boston.

The Free Time/Free People campaign has been primarily inspired by the concept of Sabbath rest - the one day a week when all work-related activity should come to a halt. "This continues to speak to all human beings," says Rabbi Waskow. "The basic sense of Shabbat is the life rhythm of work and rest.... Working and doing are not the only important things in the world."

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