Why do Americans work so much?

134 countries have rules mandating the maximum work week: here in the US we do not, and perhaps it is no surprise then that 85.8% of men and 66.5% of women work more than 40 hours a week. In fact, the International Labor Organization states,

Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.

The US is the only industrialized nation to lack a guaranteed parental leave option.

To say we are workaholics does not go far enough.

But it’s clear that this has negative consequences. The issues are stark in some industries, for example trucking. The US Department of Transportation recently enacted regulations requiring that truck drivers to take at least 34 hours off after working 60 hours in seven consecutive days or 70 hours in eight days. The rules also require truck drivers to take a 30 minute rest after 11 hours of driving. It’s obvious that these lengths of driving are too long, and are certainly linked to the high levels of trucks involved in crashes, which have gone up steadily over the past five years — fatalities rose 18% since 2009.

My point is not about trucking policies, which are insane, however. I am using that as just a backdrop to the more general insanity associated with number of hours of work that have come to be the norm in the US.

(Note that I am writing this on a Saturday, so I am as much a participant in the American Disease — workaholism — as the truck drivers out there suffering from white line fever.)

It’s true that those that feel good about themselves are likely to work more than those that don’t, but that should not be interpreted to mean that working longer hours makes people happy. On the contrary. There is clear evidence that allowing people to work less, and to manage when and where they work, leads to more happiness and work satisfaction.

We need to coopt a term from Danish — arbejdsglæde — which means happiness at work. And more importantly, we should adopt the thinking about work hours in Denmark, which is the happiest nation on Earth.

As Alexander Kjerulf points out,

Not only do Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, but they also get five to six weeks of vacation per year, several national holidays and up to a year of paid maternity/paternity leave. While the average American works 1,790 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,540, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics. Danes also have more leisure hours than any other OECD workers and the link between sufficient leisure and happiness is well established in the research.

Only 10% of Danish workers are actively disengaged as work, compared to 18% of Americans, and one of the key factors is overwork.

I believe that overwork is one of the dark elements of the dominant business culture in the US, today. In the American entrepreneurial culture overwork is expected. It is a sign of accepting the entire cultural milieu, one based on centralized decision-making on all ‘strategic’ issues, power relations directed through a flattened — but still strongly hierarchical — pyramid, and collective acceptance of corporate policies and procedures, which is referred to as consensus, but which is at its core a demand for unearned loyalty.

One of the pillars of entrepreneurial culture is the requirement of working long hours, to the point that the normal human relationships out of work are threatened, or minimized. The best example of this are the go-go tech companies that feed employees all their meals, so they don’t need to have dinner with friends and family, or to work out with non-work buddies, because the company health club is so much easier.

It’s not just that the company is after the increased productivity theoretically available from those extra hours: the members of the workforce are signaling their allegiance to the cultural norms, and the acceptance of the culture’s demands, even ones that are harmful. It’s an indication of total submission. This is partly what Marissa Mayer was after when she dismantled Yahoo’s telework program.

Alexander Kjerulf tells a story about an American who came to work in a Danish company, and — almost without thinking about it — began to demonstrate US-style signs of company allegiance, and it backfired there:

Wanting to prove his worth, he did what he had always done and put in 60 to 70 hours a week. After a month, his manager invited him to a meeting. He was fully expecting to be praised for his hard work, but instead he was asked “Why do you work so much? Is something wrong? Do you have a problem delegating? What can we do to fix this?”

In Danish work culture his workaholism was seen as something to be corrected, not as proof of his allegiance.

There is a change in the works: a shift away from the need for entrepreneurial notions of allegiance-through-unhappiness. Part of the entrepreneurial mindset is the concept of ‘creating culture’, as if culture is an implement to be designed, shaped, and applied. Corporate culture viewed as a means to control the behavior of the workforce.

I see a shift toward the notion of a greater-than-corporate work culture, one that is not employed by some to control the rest. Instead, it is simply a shared set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms related to work. And central to that new work culture is the desire for happiness in our work, finding meaning and purpose instead of being confronted with coercion and implicit threats.

We need to start with ourselves, to dig your own hole and sharpen your own shovel, as I put it. In this deeper culture, we have to start by putting ourselves first, and not subordinate our lives to the company:

The first principle of deep culture must be that all work is personal, and as a result, each individual must start with engagement with their own work. Only then can they apply that focus — as a marketer, customer support lead, programmer, or auto mechanic — to advance the ends of the business.

Leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners will need to step up to this new ethos of work, and stop demanding unearned loyalty and subservience from employees. That’s the model that has led us to the current status quo. It doesn’t work, and intensification will most likely only increase levels of disengagement.

And perhaps nothing is more central than the idea of work happiness. If we don’t start by expecting — demanding — a work environment based on happiness, then everything is out of whack. And the first step is to cut back on the hours at work, and spend more time daydreaming, learning new skills, walking the dog, or relaxing with friends and family.

Adam Bryant interviews Satya Nadella on his new role as Microsoft CEO

Adam Bryant interviews Satya Nadella, who says — and convincingly — that Microsoft needs to change, which in today’s business world means harnessing an entrepreneurial mindset in which change is always about ‘building a better culture’. Note however that this phrase is a code word for 1/ management’s role in setting strategy is legitimized by company performance, not ownership or longevity, and/or 2/ changing the conditions for employees to theoretically increase productivity, often by speeding up the assembly line. Nadella seems to be saying both.

Adam Bryant: Your company has acknowledged that it needs to create much more of a unified “one Microsoft” culture. How are you going to do that?
Satya Nadella: One thing we’ve talked a lot about, even in the first leadership meeting, was, what’s the purpose of our leadership team? The framework we came up with is the notion that our purpose is to bring clarity, alignment and intensity. What is it that we want to get done? Are we aligned in order to be able to get it done? And are we pursuing that with intensity? That’s really the job.
Culturally, I think we have operated as if we had the formula figured out, and it was all about optimizing, in its various constituent parts, the formula. Now it is about discovering the new formula. So the question is: How do we take the intellectual capital of 130,000 people and innovate where none of the category definitions of the past will matter? Any organizational structure you have today is irrelevant because no competition or innovation is going to respect those boundaries. Everything now is going to have to be much more compressed in terms of both cycle times and response times.
So how do you create that self-organizing capability to drive innovation and be focused? And the high-tech business is perhaps one of the toughest ones, because something can be a real failure until it’s not. It’s just an absolute dud until it’s a hit. So you have to be able to sense those early indicators of success, and the leadership has to really lean in and not let things die on the vine. When you have a $70 billion business, something that’s $1 million can feel irrelevant. But that $1 million business might be the most relevant thing we are doing.
To me, that is perhaps the big culture change — recognizing innovation and fostering its growth. It’s not going to come because of an org chart or the organizational boundaries. Most people have a very strong sense of organizational ownership, but I think what people have to own is an innovation agenda, and everything is shared in terms of the implementation.

First, Nadella explicitly starts by asking the purpose of management. And, true to the entrepreneurial mindset, the purpose of management is to clarify a strategy for the business, and to get everyone to align with it’s implications in their own area of responsibility. And he suggests that the company needs to up the intensity. Note: ultimately all cultural change comes down to people changing their behavior, and perhaps the values that underlie them. So, he is saying he wants people to up their personal intensity, and presumably, the ones that won’t will be ushered out.
This is the contemporary norm for established high tech business. Including the emphasis on innovation, and the implication that the role of management also includes acting as a funding source of innovative ideas to be tested within the company, in a marketplace of ideas.
Nadella’s recapitulation of the entrepreneurial baseline comes as no surprise: how else could he have gotten the job? And for a 39 year-old company that has only been run by two CEOs, one of which is the iconic Bill Gates, to try to become a mainstream entrepreneurial company instead of the original top-down, command and control machine that Microsoft was in the 90’s, well, maybe that’s a good start.
HIs statement about ‘a strong sense of organizational ownership’ is a reflection of the neofeudal management style of Microsoft’s first 30 years.
It may fall the the next CEO to make the more difficult adjustment, or Nadella a few years hence, if he survives. The next challenge is to move past the leadership-centric entrepreneurial model — flattened hierarchy with a small elite controlling strategy, an aligned workforce marching in step toward the official future, and where ‘strong culture’ is shorthand for lack of diversity, enforced consensus, and heteronomy  — and to transition to a much more agile, decentralized, and faster organization filled with highly autonomous workers: leanership.
The key to getting out to the edge of rapidly changing markets in a time of great uncertainty and change is not trying to build an organization where the elite makes the right bet and the rest carry the chips, but to allow many people to make their own bets, most of which may be in conflict. The only rational approach in a time of great uncertainty is to accept a higher degree of risk.
So when Nadella says clarity, alignment, and intensity I don’t expect to see the company becoming looser, more people-centric, more agile, or more innovative. On the contrary. At least not right away.
Once again, Nadella might have to start by breaking down the fiefdoms left over from the Gates/Ballmer neofeudalism that reigned for 30 some years, and this constitutional monarchy that he is proposing might turn out to be a necessary waypoint on the road to a more democratic and modern Microsoft. But it might be difficult to transition from being a Monarch to a Prime Minister.