Jeff Bezos does not believe in the term “work-life balance,” labeling it a “debilitating phrase,” as citedin Business Insider. According to Bezos, the underpinning of the term “work-life balance” assumes a tradeoff. Bezos, instead, likens the relationship between the two to a circle. When you’re happier at home, you perform better at work; when you’re happy at work, you’re more present at home.
The problem is most employees arn´t n control to be able to implement the “circle” framework proposed by Bezos. Instead, they feel beholden to the demands of their employer. Having burned the midnight oil at work for the greater part of my twenties, I’ve seen the draining effects of stress both at work and at home. Chronic stress, as much as we don’t want it, is our modern day silent killer.
Having seen the negative effects of stress firsthand, I was intrigued to come across Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s new book on this very phenomenon, Dying For A Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health And Company Performance And What We Can Do About It (HarperCollins, March 2018.) I had long been a fan of Pfeffer’s for his work on power and influence in organizations and was curious to study his research on the toll toxic workplaces produce.
The Problem: Drivers Of Stress In The Workplace
Pfeffer’s book explores the primary drivers of what he calls “workplace exposures” that negatively impact human health including working long hours in a week (e.g., more than forty hours), facing family-to-work and work-to-family conflicts, having relatively low control over one’s job and job environment, and facing high job demands such as pressure to work fast.
The one effect that seemed to be the most pervasive, in my experience, was long working hours. In today’s world it’s taken on a whole new meaning and subsequently has become a primary driver of stress. As Pfeffer points out, “long hours have become the norm for successful employees interested in advancing their careers.” There is little question about that.
There are a number of factors that contribute to stress but long hours is chief among them. “In a perverse twist, longer work hours have become a status symbol—a marker of how important, indeed indispensable, someone is …. As such, people want to put in long hours to signal how valuable they are.”
This isn’t a new problem, but it’s become exacerbated in recent years. Pfeffer quotes David Waldman, vice-president of human resources at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as saying: “Overwork is not new in this country …. But in some ways, it seems like it’s hitting critical mass.” Long hours are pervasive no matter what job or industry you’re in. Among any working person, the 9-5 is a relic of times past, and anyone who attempts to work those hours is often ridiculed as only working a half day.
Oddly, anyone who has worked long hours (which as far as I can tell is most people) can tell you that it has a lot more to do with image than with productivity. “In the contest for promotions, work hours become one way of competing.” Working long hours has become synonymous with a successful career. The two are rarely stripped apart. Employees need to show they’re putting in time whether they’re working or not. “It is expected as part of the ‘price’ for career success – and in many instances, exceptional levels of income and responsibility.” Employees willingly put in the long hours to stand out. And as more and more people do, it almost becomes the expectation.
Employees treat work hours as a signal of their value to their employer. As Pfeffer writes, “Employees, then, become complicit in the long-work-hours culture. Seeking to stand out and demonstrate commitment, each individual puts in more time.” Most people who have worked late hours will attest that it doesn’t actually yield higher productivity. Long work hours are a signal for other things. “Because employers see long work hours as a signal of employee effort and loyalty, employers reward those who put in long hours, in part because employers favor those who are willing to make sacrifices for the organization.”
Remote work has only exacerbated this problem. Work extends far beyond the office. Most people will put in time late at night, on weekends, and even on vacation. Pfeffer cites, “One survey reported that 81 percent of respondents said they checked e-mail on the weekends, 55 percent said they logged in after 11 p.m., and 59 percent said they looked at e-mail while on vacation.”
But employers aren’t complaining. Employers will happily take any extra time employees are willing to put in. Praise is an ongoing incentive. Any employee who puts in extra work is showered with additional praise rather than reprimand. As Pfeffer points, “Employers also prefer longer rather than shorter hours because of the implicit belief that work output is related to the number of hours worked—the more hours, the higher the output.” Incorrectly, I might add. “Long work hours produce fatigue and boredom, which lead to making more mistakes ….”
This might make you wonder: Do these practices, which employers appear to endorse, actually yield better results?
The Symptoms: The Cost Of Stress
If you’re employed in a corporation today, none of this should be new. But precisely because everyone is plagued by the same stress, it’s easy to dismiss it as a normal working condition. There are, however, two primary costs of stress that often go unnoticed: a) the productivity cost, and b) the financial cost
a) Productivity Cost
Pfeffer cites two very interesting notes regarding this point. The first is a study on the impact of overtime work. “A study using panel data for eighteen industries in the United States found that the use of overtime hours lowers average output per hour worked for almost all the industries in the sample. A 10 percent increase in overtime results in a 2.4 percent decrease in productivity.”
But productivity declines much sooner than any of us would expect. Pfeffer cites a Stanford economist, John Pencavel, regarding the correlation between hours worked and productivity. According to Pencavel, “the optimum number of work hours was about 48 per week. Below that number, output declined proportionately with the decline in hours worked. But once workers clocked … more than 48 hours, output started to fall.”
The impact on productivity is only the first order effect. The second, far greater, effect is the financial cost.
b) Financial Cost
The financial cost of unhealthy workplace exposures are rarely taken seriously in most organizations. And yet, looking at it from a purely quantitative point of view, the numbers are not pretty. “Workplace environments in the United States ….account for about $180 billion additional health-care expenditures, approximately 8 percent of the total health-care spending.”
Perhaps even more interesting was the study Pfeffer conducted with his team. The study assessed the incremental annual health-care costs incurred by employers based on different workplace conditions. The results are telling. The largest excess health-care costs were due to high job demands, with a total of $46 billion in annual excess health-care costs. To put it in comparison, work-family conflict came in at $24 billion, long work hours ranked $13 billion, and low job control $11 billion.
And yet, despite the clear costs of these workplace conditions, I have seen very few signs of meaningful change across organizations. Perks and free food are not the solutions to this problem. If anything, changing technology is enabling work to become ever more portable. With the low likelihood that employers are not going to change in the near future, it is up to employees to walk away.