A Culture of Overworking
by Morgan LaMere | published Dec. 11th, 2019
Most students are bound to have heard something like this: "Enjoy your time at college, because it all goes downhill from here."
As students, we’re regularly bombarded with somber reminders that once we leave college, our lives as we know them are essentially over. We’re told to make college count — to have as much fun as we can so that we can later leech from the nostalgia it provides.
But wait a second, isn't college supposed to be a time to prepare yourself for the fulfilling career waiting for you? What happened?
An Overworked Society
While far from a universal rule, in America there’s a common idea that we live to work. Rather than working to enjoy our lives, our lives often become consumed by our work.
According to Robert Ulin, a professor in anthropology, this is a fundamental difference between the U.S. and Europe that he discovered from years of living in France.
“[After giving birth,] women can step out of the workforce for a full year with pay and have no anxiety that [their] job won’t exist when they come back," Ulin said.
Ulin stated that RIT and corporations are still working toward having such a supportive policy. At the time of his daughter's birth seven years ago, he relied upon colleagues to fill in for classes and other work and to be understanding if he missed meetings.
Alongside strong maternal leave policies, France's work week is also shortened to as low as 35 hours. According to Ulin, research indicates that this change doesn't fail to cut productivity — it might even improve it.
Vincent Serravallo, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, stated just how different the U.S. was from Europe. He referenced both the U.S.'s heavy emphasis on work, and how we’re one of the countries with the highest hours worked.
“In [the industrial era], employers were demanding six days a week, 12-13 hour days,” Serravallo said. “We fought very hard to get the eight-hour workday; now, we’re moving in the opposite direction.”
Serravallo claimed that this post-World War II era boom brought about stronger unions. Work was more long term and families could often survive on one paycheck.
Now, both spouses are often forced to work, and union representation is down to a small percentage of the workforce. He stated that the population is now split between those who can’t find enough work and those who are overworked, with college graduates often falling into that latter portion of working over 50 hours per work week.
“All these things together create longer hours, more intense and faster-paced [work environments] with no mandated vacation time, sick days or holidays,” Serravallo said. “Lower-income workers have the least amount of opportunity for sick and parental leave.”
“We fought very hard to get the eight-hour workday; now, we’re moving in the opposite direction.”
This dramatic difference between the U.S. and western Europe has a lot to do with cultural values and the policies that come from them.
“In regard to shift leave, vacation and holidays, there is no federal policy on that,” Serravallo said. “In other words, if someone wants to work 365 days each year, they may do so.”
Individualism vs. Collectivism
The lack of an all-encompassing policy has a lot to do with America's individualism and personal freedom. But does having the individual freedom to pick between two choices matter?
“[We have] concerns that if we have those laws, we take away from the autonomy of corporations to set certain policies,” Ulin said.
While some might say this lack of policy lifts certain restraints, Ulin argues that this only makes us more vulnerable.
“Despite higher taxes, [Europe] gets a great deal more security,” Ulin said.
Without the financial stability provided by a job, individuals are often on their own when providing for their basic needs.
“Housing needs and medical insurance is all based on the work we have,” Serravallo said. “We need to work because so many of our needs are coupled.”
Connecting our well-being to one specific job only makes our careers more stressful.
Maria Richart, director of Career Services and Cooperative Education, suggested one of the main reasons we feel overworked comes down to our core identity.
“The first thing people ask you is what you do for a living,” Richart stated. “In Europe, it’s different — each time I go, I come back with a sense of valuing people, time and what you do.”
To Richart, the U.S. focuses on what someone does for a living as their identity, while Europeans focus on valuing experiences.
Ulin suggested that, by coming together, we can solve things we otherwise could not. In the past, we’ve come together to enact change through unions. If one employee goes alone to request improvements, they are likely to be turned down. However, as shown with the recent General Motors strike, real concessions can be achieved.
With a new generation entering the workforce, there is an increased opportunity to enact collective change. According to Serravallo, this change is already taking place.
“If we come to realize that people working collectively can achieve certain kinds of common ends, that’s a way to make advancements at the university level and at the political level,” Ulin said.
Conversely, there are many who work long hours by choice, rather than by mandate of a company.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
Some employees who work overtime and long hours do so out of necessity, while others work to improve their quality of living.
“You’re faced with continuing anxiety of 'How am I going to pay my bills; how am I going to pay for college?'” Ulin said. “[On the other hand] there are people devoting themselves to making money and ignoring their families, and they come to a reckoning.”
This seldom ends well and, according to Ulin, eventually comes to a choice between a connection with their family or their pursuit of economic success.
To Serravallo, money does not buy happiness. Social science tells us that less is more if you are connected to something bigger than your own personal life.
“Connection with other people, control at work, having a say in decision making in the workplace, your community and in family [is what matters],” he said. “A lot of people graduate from RIT [believing] that success means material success. That’s not true.”
For Richart, her views on money buying happiness were definite.
“It really can’t,” she said. “Well, for some people it can, but for me, it can’t.”
When she was in graduate school, her professor told her that she shouldn't go into this difficult profession for the money — a position in corporate America would provide a salary three times as high. But to Richart, she loved her work, and it was the American spirit to give back that she appreciates.
“For some people, [earning more] helps them to give back. That giving spirit, it makes you happy,” she said. “That’s what makes us great, our giving experience.”
For Dawn Whaley, president of Sharecare — an individualized health platform — her beliefs closely match those of the company she represents. Sharecare is a company focused around helping people build a better life through individual transformation. To Whaley, it’s never focused on the money.
“Some people are their best selves when they’re working 24/7 and that makes them really happy," she said. "Sometimes those people make a ton of money, some don’t, but they’re really happy.”
How To: Self-Care
Whaley believes that the U.S. is near the top of the list for overworked and under-vacationed countries and uses this knowledge to better help her own employees.
Nearly 80 percent of Sharecare's workers utilize the app service. They also frequently host “Wellness Wednesday” activities on a regular basis to encourage healthful habits and employee well-being. In addition, their work from home policy allows for a more flexible work environment.
Working from home has its own problems, according to Richart, stating that it’s often difficult for people if they don't have a set eight-hour workday.
“People who work from home have a harder time disconnecting [their work life from their home life] — where do you draw that line?” Richart said.
Workers with salaries face a similar issue. While workers who are paid hourly have strict rules, salaried workers work until they get the job done.
According to a study conducted by Ohio University, the top 10 percent of employees don’t work a full eight hours, usually taking breaks every hour. A similar study in Sweden showed that, of the nurses included in the study, those who worked a six-hour day instead of eight took half as many days off, were 64 percent more productive and were 20 percent happier overall.
Harvard Business Review also showed that working a six-hour day could be just as productive, if not more. A New Zealand-based study showed the creative benefits of a 32-hour workweek.
The evidence is there; for many, however, tradition can be hard to break.
“When I was coming up in the early ’90s, you worked hard, came [to work] first and left last,” Whaley said. “Now, it’s shifting to quality over quantity.”
Part of this change is being spurred on by the introduction of millennials to the workforce, overcoming the patterns set in the industrial age.
“The second or third most important thing to millennials is working for a passion and being true to themselves,” Whaley said. “I feel like, I always want to tell anyone to just do their best.”
This change is not only being felt in the workplace, but also on college campuses and during co-ops.
“Your generation is completely different from the generation before, specifically valuing work-life balance,” Richart said, regarding typical students.
Richart noticed that many students going on co-op are really valuing not just the technical aspects, but the time to explore. However, there is still some improvement to do.
“College students know what they like to do, [but they only] look at the job and the salary,” she said. “Take a step back; look at the company, look at the culture, does it match your culture?”
“Take a step back; look at the company, look at the culture, does it match your culture?”
Corporate culture changes every day, but still too slowly for some. In the meantime, take those few minutes and extra days here and there for self-care. If you have a break, use it, and try to keep work confined to the actual workplace.
Richart cannot express how important it is to take some time to have an actual lunch break and talk to people, to stand up and walk around.
“Take care of your mental health during the day,” she said. “Create relationships; you see them more often than your own family — you better like them!”