What to Expect in 2008: Work, Work, Work
Credit: Dreamstime.com
Credit: Dreamstime.com

If you've resolved to work less or cut stress in 2008, expect to break your resolution. A surprisingly large segment of the global workforce spends long hours on the job, despite all the time-saving promises of technology.

In fact, technology simply brings more work for many, as modern communication devices erase boundaries between work and home.

And with overwork comes stress, and stress begets disease and other myriad effects on family life.

By the numbers, more than 600 million people around the world put in 48-hour-plus workweeks, according to the most recent report by the International Labor Organization. Americans, it turns out, are not the hardest workers. Indonesia and Peru top the list, both reporting that more than half of their workforces log 48-plus weekly hours compared with 18 percent of Americans.

"The good news is that progress has been made in regulating normal working hours in developing and transition countries, but overall the findings of this study are definitely worrying, especially the prevalence of excessively long hours," said co-author of the study Jon Messenger, senior research officer for the ILO's Conditions of Work and Employment Program.

Who works more?

The ILO study examined working hours in more than 50 countries.

Developed countries with workers logging more than 48 weekly hours for 2004 to 2005 included:

  • United Kingdom: 26 percent
  • Israel: 26 percent
  • Australia: 20 percent
  • Switzerland: 19 percent
  • United States: 18 percent

Developing countries with workers logging more than 48 weekly hours for 2004 to 2005 included:

  • Indonesia: 51 percent
  • Peru: 51 percent
  • Republic of Korea: 50 percent
  • Thailand: 47 percent (data from 2000)
  • Pakistan: 44 percent

Overall, men tended to work longer average hours than women worldwide, with women working shorter hours on the job in almost every country studied. The report concludes that this is likely due to their bearing the primary responsibility for "unpaid" work in households and providing care for family members.

Family time

After spending so much time bringing home the bacon, many U.S. parents are balls of stress. Home lives tend to get the short shrift.

The work-family balance has recently re-emerged as a political issue. Last fall, Sen. Hillary Clinton announced an agenda to help parents balance work and family.

"Too many Americans feel trapped between being a good parent and being a good worker," Clinton said in a prepared statement. "It's about time we stopped just talking about family values and started pursuing policies that truly value families. All Americans who are working hard and taking responsibility deserve the chance to do right by their children."

Clinton says the work-family plan would work in partnership with America's businesses to ensure that pro-family work policies and increasing workplace flexibility help improve American competitiveness and economic growth.

Policy-makers may want to take note of one ironic barrier to work-family balance: the technological communications revolution.

"Working people who use technologies like cell phones and pagers, these communication technologies, they are experiencing a blurring of boundaries between work and home," said Noelle Chesley, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Her research has suggested such "digital leashes" make it that much easier for work to spill over into family life. These technologies, she said, "make life more stressful." In one study, Chesley found regular users of cell phones and other electronic links to work reported a decline in family satisfaction.

Historical perspective

Compare these seeming overworked employees with our agrarian ancestors who didn't clock in and out at the office. Entire families worked more or less all the time in an effort to have enough goods to consume or sell to subsist and/or support personal needs.

"When we had an agrarian society, making ends meet was sort of a family endeavor," Chesley told LiveScience. "They never would've thought of it as being work and family. It was just 'we have to grow our crops and we're going to keep some of them and we're going to sell some of them.'"

The concept of separating work from family happened with industrialization in the 19th century in this country.

"Back when everyone was on the farm we didn't talk about boundaries between work and family," Chesley said.

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