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Why We Overwork : Competition, a New Economy and Even Labor-Saving Devices Are Leaving Less Time for Leisure

June 13, 1988|JOAN LIBMAN

It was 6 a.m. Sunday. As he stumbled out of bed, Ed Klein was puzzled by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Glancing down the hallway, Klein solved the mystery. He focused on his wife, Bonnie, still in her bathrobe, huddled over the computer, surrounded by accounting spread sheets.

Bonnie Klein no longer has time for aerobics, jogging or tennis. On weeknights, she isn't home early enough to cook dinner. She has given up reading novels and women's magazines. Instead, her bedtime fare is likely to be Modern Healthcare or the Healthcare Executive.

Assistant hospital administrator at Kaiser Permanente in Woodland Hills, Klein, 42, is one of a growing number of mostly white-collar workers for whom "hours on the job" long ago outdistanced time allotted for eating, sleeping and recreation put together.

Klein, for one, arrives at the office before 8 a.m., doesn't go out for lunch and rarely leaves before 6:30 or 7 p.m. At least one week per month, she is at her home computer at 5:30 a.m., completing material for a 9 a.m. meeting. On weekends, she frequently makes the 80-minute round-trip drive from home in Malibu to her office to drop off or pick up work.

By working early in the morning, Klein says, she maximizes evening and weekend time with her husaband and two daughters. But she never resents the number of hours required to do her work. "I love what I do. And when I'm engrossed in a project, it's hard for me to stop just because the day is over." And Klein doesn't feel guilty. "Most of my social structure revolves around friendships at work and with parents of my kids' friends. And, frankly, everyone else is working the same number of hours."

Growing Workloads

Historically, building a business or getting the promotion always required hard work. But for several decades after World War II, American companies had few rivals in the marketplace--and most office workers expected no more than an 8-hour day, including lunch. Today, greater numbers of professionals are vying for the top of the hill (workers with post-graduate degrees have more than doubled in the last 10 years), and the amount of time they devote to professional labors has been piquing the interest of sociologists and human behaviorists for some time. Prodded by growing workloads, ambition, or both, they have a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for staying at the office, sometimes at the expense of a meaningful personal life, being an adequate parent and physical health.

Some social scientists are critical of this trend. In their book, "The Addictive Organization," psychotherapists Anne Wilson Schaef and organizational consultant Diane Fassel argue that today's workaholoics are addicts. "Workaholism is the most socially accepted of all addictions. But it is a progressive disease, just like alcoholism and drug addiction," they claim.

UCLA management professor Eric Flamholtz, who is also a corporate consultant, began noticing the change at the end of 1982. Since then, he said, managers have increasingly commented about longer hours.

"I travel all over the country, and most people I see feel they could work seven days a week, 24 hours a day and not get done," he said.

"Working longer hours is a solid trend. There's no question about it," comments pollster Louis Harris, who has been tracking social change for more than 40 years.

A recent Harris poll found the workweek increased to 46.8 hours in 1987, up from 40.6 hours in 1973. During the same period, Harris noted, leisure time shrank to 16.2 hours weekly, down from 26.2 hours. In another survey, Harris determined that professional people work 52.2 hours weekly, with small business people putting in 57.3 hours per week.

Marketing expert Faith Popcorn concurs. "We're seeing people start work earlier and work later in order to keep up. They don't want to look like workaholics, but they need the extra hours, so they get up at 5 a.m.," she said.

Among the reasons for the new workaholism, experts commonly cite increased competition, technological advances (efficiency-increasing equipment that makes it possible to do more work) and budget cuts (which have left fewer workers to share the load).

Some point to our drift from a manufacturing to a service economy. In service businesses, such as law, accounting, management consulting or executive search, "The way you differentiate yourself from the competition is by giving clients tremendous service, going way beyond an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. orientation," observes Caroline W. Nahas, managing vice president of Korn/Ferry International in Century City.

"There is a relentless drive to win the case, get the project done on time and under budget, or find the exceptional candidate," she adds.

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