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.

Does wanting balance mean you are lazy?

I stumbled across an egregious example of a pernicious trend in Businessweek today, in a piece entitled Do U.S. Business Majors Have a Case of Ambition Deficit Disorder? The author, Francesca Di Meglio, posed this question after learning that 61% of US business majors said that their highest career priority was work-life balance. The tone of the article is pretty strident that this represents a moral failing of the Millennials in business schools, and that other possible goals — like advancing in management, or seeking out challenging work — should be higher in the rankings.
The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence starts with this famous sentence,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Altogether too frequently, it seems to me, commentary about how people should be spending their time, and what we should consider valuable, forgets the simple and inherent importance of pursuing happiness. And working 60 hours a week for 40 years is not necessarily the short path to get there.
Cali Williams Yost wrote a thoughtful post on this subject, 3 Reasons “Balance” Has Become A Dirty Word At Work. Yost relates a discussion with a senior executive about Millennials, where he shares the “Millennials are lazy” meme. Yost thinks the truth is different:

He is not alone in that thinking. The meme that Gen-Y/Millennials “don’t want to work hard” exists, in part, because they talk so openly about work-life balance. But is the bias fair?
First, there will always be people in every generation who don’t want to work hard. The Gen-Y/Millennials are no exception, but is it accurate to ascribe that quality to an entire generation simply because they are open about how they want to make their lives both on and off the job a priority?

She goes on to answer  that question in the negative, citing new evidence from the American Psychological Association about workplace retention [emphasis mine]:

Although 60 percent of working Americans said they remain with their current employers because of benefits and 59 percent reported staying because of the pay, more than two-thirds (67 percent) said they choose to stay because their jobs fit well with the other aspects of their lives. Sixty-seven percent also said they stay at their current jobs because they enjoy the work they do. Even with the slow economic recovery and relatively high unemployment, only 39 percent of respondents cited lack of other job opportunities as a reason for staying with their current employers.
“Americans spend a majority of their waking hours at work and, as such, they want to have harmony between their job demands and the other parts of their lives,” says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, head of APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. “To engage the workforce and remain competitive, it’s no longer sufficient to focus solely on benefits. Today, top employers create an environment where employees feel connected to the organization and have a positive work experience that’s part of a rich, fulfilling life.”

Yost makes the case that Millennials are simply more likely to expect that desire for balance to be openly discussed, and to involve increased flexibility of where, when, and how work is performed. This is the internet generation, and they know that they can do some parts of their work anywhere. However, their boomer overlords and Gen X are more likely to want them in the office 9-to-5 to match the perceptions and norms of an earlier era.
But I don’t expect to hear the end of the ‘ambition deficit disorder’ meme anytime soon.

Engagement requires happiness

I reported on a Silk Road survey on employee engagement this past week, which showed a stark reality: employees are disengaged at work, and companies aren’t doing much about it (see New survey on employee engagement finds Millennials least engaged).

[from the Silk Road web site]

A full 86 percent of employers are feeling the negative effects of disengagement, including: unmotivated employees (66 percent); low morale (67 percent); employees who feel unappreciated (64 percent); and the inability to retain employees (48 percent).  SilkRoad surveyed 781 HR professionals in February of 2013 to reveal what happens behind the scenes in their companies as it relates to employee engagement. (see report).


  • Formal employee engagement programs are the exception, not the rule: A majority (54 percent) of companies do not have formal employee engagement programs in place, as compared to 38 percent that do.  However, 73 percent reported participating in engagement programs on some level.
  • Measurement is a weakness of employee engagement programs: A majority of employers  (59 percent) only measure employee engagement once per year.  Few companies employ mid-year “pulse” surveys (17 percent) and use social media (16 percent) to measure workforce engagement on an ongoing basis.

The numbers should be shocking, but they line up with my perceptions about the state of work today. And note that nowhere in the discussion does the idea of happiness come up.

A second post last week I talked about happiness (see The pragmatics of happiness at work: It’s just good business). It should be obvious that happier employees — meaning both happier about the work and about everything else — will be more productive and more engaged. But there is a strange disconnect in the business world: it’s fine to measure ‘engagement’ — although few do so systematically — but companies seldom measure happiness. And they may put an HR-led engagement program in place, but they are much less likely to create a ‘happiness’ program.

What would be involved in such a program? Here’s a few key ideas from what we know about happiness:

  1. Reduce stress in the workplace, especially the kind that causes people to worry about the security of their jobs, such as threats about being fired if certain work isn’t accomplished on time, for example. Bullying in general raises stress, as do activities that induce fear. Company leaders should work hard to reduce these factors.
  2. Increase the number of connections that people have in the workplace. Some companies are instituting programs to have employees casually meet others one-on-one, with the goal of making new contacts, and perhaps some serendipitous idea creation as well. A lot of research shows that people are happier at work when they have friends and trusted colleagues in the office.
  3. It’s been shown that simply having team members share their progress toward goals — like posting tasks that have been accomplished on a work media solution like Yammer, Podio, or Jive — will significantly increase happiness, even of those merely observing.

There are a broad spectrum of solutions available. Employee recognition programs can be iffy, if there are ways to game the programs. That can lead to higher dissatisfaction.

I recently reviewed Tell Your Boss Anything, which is an anonymous way for employees to provide negative feedback to their management. Just as I think that there may be a business model in employees (and freelancers) hiring agents to represent them in compensation and employment negotiations, there is a place for trusted anonymous brokers in the workplace that make it possible for employees to point out practices that make them stressed, fearful, angry, or disengaged. And I hope businesses will listen.

The fundamental dynamic of social business is listening, and a company that can’t do that will not be able to accomplish anything else, no matter how much social technology they acquire.


The pragmatics of happiness at work: It’s just good business

Much of the discussion of today’s social technologies is centered in the nature of human relationships, which is not surprising: after all, they are based on social relationships. These are tools intended to connect us together, and ultimately, shape culture.

But the strictures of business culture can often include prohibitions against discussing many facets of our lives in the business setting, even those that are human universals, like the pursuit of happiness.

I suggest that one of the side-effects of the adoption of social technologies is the relaxing of social strictures. As a company adopts a faster-and-looser model of operations — based on the displacement of strong ties by and increased number of weaker ones — many of the unexamined motivators in business can actually be discussed, and used positively.

Happiness is one such issue. First, let’s start with the almost obvious point: people who are happy are more productive, more likely to come to work, and less likely to leave a company that they feel happy in. The contrapositive also holds: people who are unhappy are less productive, less likely to come to work, and more likely to quit. So there is a strong rationale to make workers happy. It also turns out that talking about happiness helps people become happier.

However, it turns out that some of the things that are conventionally associated with happiness really don’t have as big of an impact as generally thought. Like money. After a certain amount of income, most people don’t get happier with more money.

But many things can make people unhappy in the workplace. The biggest considerations are stress. Most people do not like stressful environments where people are shouted at, threatened with the possible loss of their job, or bullied to do things that they do not want to, like taking physical risks.  These pressures can be subtle, and environments can be stressful even if the voices are low and the pressures less overt.

People enjoy living as whole people, as opposed to simply filling a role. No one can be truly happy as a cog in someone else’s machine.

There are many techniques to make work more enjoyable, and some are very simple. For example, Roger Meade learned that simply having workers share their progress — tasks accomplished — and knowing that others were aware of their progress, makes people happy. This might account for the widespread adoption of task management and work media tools were team members can share task-level progress with others. [This also has the interesting side effect of making time seem to pass more quickly, which is strongly correlated with happiness, too.] But the deepest happiness at work comes from the combination of mastery of skills, high autonomy, and the positive regard of those to whom we are most closely connected.

And it is not enough to do work that makes us happy: we need to know that it’s good for others, as well. Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy, and makes this case very clearly, and highlights some of the challenges for us:

Since humans are distinct persons but with essential ties to a community, my work must be fulfilling both individually and socially: I must do something that satisfies me as an individual and that I regard as producing significant good for others. Of course, unless I have the luck of being born rich, my work must also generate enough income to provide me the minimal goods without which happiness is not even possible. The challenge is to find satisfying work with an adequate income.

Our capitalist system makes this difficult. First, it encourages workers to sacrifice work satisfaction to higher income. People who would, say, find teaching or social work especially satisfying instead opt for higher paying jobs as lawyers or accountants. The pressure on those with artistic inclinations is particularly intense, since it is almost impossible to earn an adequate living as an actor, visual artist, writer or musician. The idea is often that the extra money will support more enjoyable leisure activities — travel, concerts, luxurious homes. But jobs, especially high paying ones, easily take over our time and our identities, and the leisure fun doesn’t outweigh the distress of not being who we really want to be.

Second, the trend toward “disposable jobs,” which expects a worker to run through, over a lifetime, a series of quite different positions to meet market requirements, destroys the satisfaction of a sustained vocation. With planning, skill and luck, it is possible to navigate the currents of capitalism to a lifetime of satisfying work. But the system itself is geared more to profit than to worker satisfaction.

So we often encounter barriers to happiness. The most far-sighted business leaders will work to decrease those barriers to happiness in the workplace, knowing that people will trade off financial rewards for greater satisfaction and a sense of belonging. The most radical step in this regard, perhaps,  is the ‘no fire’ policy, that I wrote about recently (see What does a ‘No Fire’ policy change? Everything.).

I will close with a cognitive science take on this, which approaches happiness from a more fundamental level: why do we have ‘happiness’ in the first place, biologically? George Lowenstein answers:

Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.

And in a parallel sense, business leaders should want their workers to be happy. If not for the happiness itself then for its direct consequence: it’s just good business.

Checking off our to-dos makes us happy, and others, too

I am not a classic neatnik, but I do believe in the power of task management, and I work fairly diligently to keep my tasks organized into projects and to update them frequently. And when I work with others, I rely on shared task managers — like Asana and in the past Basecamp — to coordinate.

So I am interested in the psychology of task management, the motivations for keeping my tasks updated. I stumbled upon some recent research done at Florida State University that suggests that just straightening up your plans for how to finish pending tasks will make you more capable of getting other work done.

Tom Stafford, The psychology of the to-do list

Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo at Florida State University were interested in an old phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is what psychologists call our mind’s tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those we’ve completed. You can see the effect in action in a restaurant or bar – you can easily remember a drinks order, but then instantly forget it as soon as you’ve put the drinks down. I’ve mentioned this effect before when it comes to explaining the psychology behind Tetris.

A typical way to test for the Zeigarnik Effect is to measure if an unfulfilled goal interferes with the ability to carry out a subsequent task. Baumeister and Masicampo discovered that people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task – because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. What Baumeister and Masicampo did next is the interesting thing; they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task. They weren’t allowed to finish it, just to make plans on how they’d finish it. Sure enough, those people allowed to make plans were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the warm-up task unfinished.

So, this is one reason why going through your to do list regularly increases your productivity: you can move past the Zeigarnik effect caused by unfinished tasks simply by imagining the next steps to take to accomplish them. Then the unfinished work can be forgotten for the time being, and we can think about other more urgent tasks.

Increasingly, we are operating in social tools that stream a series of updates to us, including the news that others in our workgroups are completing tasks. Robert Levin wrote about the ‘time flies’ effect related to feeling that progress is being made toward some goal:

Robert Levin, A Geography Of Time

Psychologists and planners have sometimes used the “time flies” phenomenon to their advantage. In one project, for example, psychologist Robert Meade was able to improve workers’ morale by speeding up the psychological clock. Meade took advantage of the fact that that time is experienced as shorter when people believe that they are making progress toward a goal. The sense of progress, he found, can be enhanced through simple procedures such as establishing a definite end point to the task and providing incentives to reach those goals. Before his experiment, Meade heard comments from workers like “It sees like the day would never end” or “It seems like I’ve been here all day but it’s not even lunchtime yet.” After establishing a sense of progress there were proclamations like “The day went by so quickly — it seems like I just got started.” It is difficult to know, of course, to what extent speeding up the passage of time led to a more pleasant experience  or vice versa. The direction of cause and effect, however, is less important than the net effect on workers’ well-being. Employers might be pleased to note that these increases in morale are often accompanied by accelerated production.

In our social workstreams, people are updating status messages based on accomplishing tasks — shipped proposal to Jone Co, pushed new baseline of the UX mockups, completed first draft of the Big Data report — and as these pass by to the workgroup the Meade effect takes hold: people sense that the group is making progress toward shared goals, and time seems to pass faster for everyone.

We are all aware of that there is a link between the feeling that time is passing quickly and happiness. We don’t know, psychologically, which is influencing which. But nonetheless, one direct consequence of this linkage is that people are happier when they sense progress being made, even when it is others that are checking off their own goals.

Another proof that happiness is catching, like head colds, and a great argument for sharing the checking off of to-dos: it makes others feel more productive, and happy, as well.

Focus: Do More and Better Work By Being Present

A Harvard study reveals what you probably already suspected: a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The trouble is, our minds are very likely to stray from the task at hand unless we’re doing things that tend to require our undivided attention.

Yes, It’s True: The Internet Makes You Happier

A new study being released in Britain today says that access to the Internet, and especially to social networks such as Facebook, can improve people’s level of happiness — particularly the well-being of women, those from a lower-income background and those with lower levels of education.