It’s About Time (and Thinking that We Need to Constantly Work)

busy-600x600Before you continue reading, I want you to do an experiment.  Go to the first person you see and ask them, “How are you?”

My guess is that a lot of people you asked (especially if you are at work) said, “Busy.” (I suspect the runner-up responses are “Tired” or “Stressed” which are related to being busy.).

If you are wondering what happened to the response “I’m fine” or “I’m OK,” read on.

In her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the TimeBrigid Schulte draws on research from psychology, sociology, management, economics, medicine, and personal experience to talk about being “time poor” or simply  being busy.  The book has generated a great deal of interest, been reviewed in the NY Times, the Washington Post, and was named a top book of 2014.

The popularity of the book is good news for sociologists and not only because of the author’s reliance on sociological research to inform the discussion of a problem that encompasses the economy, the family, and life in general. It means that sociologists have a chance to be the forefront of much talked about, much needed change at work.

Schulte’s book engages in a discussion of paid work, family, and play because all three contribute to the feeling of being unable to control your time, the inability to manage or predict how you spend your time, and having no time to think about this powerlessness—what she calls the “overwhelm.”  It is probably not an accident that she writes about the world of paid work first; I see that world as the most central to the cause—but also key to the solution—to the problem of “overwhelm.” I focus on a few things that she has to say about the world of work here.

The ideal worker norm is a recurring theme in sociology—last year, a special issue of the journal Work & Occupations was dedicated to it and to the redesign of work in light of this norm.  The ideal worker is one who works full-time, continuously, without interruption from home or caregiving (note, it’s not exactly the worker who produces the highest quality work).  The ideal worker is also typically male. Schulte’s description of the ideal worker norm gives a more personal face to this norm.  The ideal worker, she writes (pages 76-7), “…doesn’t mop up after the child who barfs up her breakfast Cheerios or the green Saint Patrick’s Day cookie of the night before. He wrinkles his nose, says, ‘Good luck with that,’ and waltzes out the door.”

Without a doubt, in a society where the ideal worker norm exists (and it exists in the U.S.), “overwhelm” will happen.  The ideal worker will feel overwhelmed by the expectation he needs to be constantly “on” and at work.  The (more often than not) woman the ideal worker leaves at home to handle everything outside of work (childcare, housework, scheduling appointments, driving children to and from places, shopping, home maintenance, care for relatives….) will feel the “overwhelm.”

Can we rid ourselves of the ideal worker norm, despite the norm’s complex history in the U.S.? I talk about some research here, some of which hints that we may be closer to crawling out from underneath the overwhelm caused by the ideal worker norm and some of which suggests we have a long way to go to changing this norm.  I also discuss things we can do….

I start first by tackling the question of whether we even should rid ourselves of the ideal worker norm.  After all, you might be thinking, don’t employers benefit from us working so “hard”? Not exactly.

According to Sara Robinson (Bring Back the 40 Hour Work Week), there is solid evidence dating back over one hundred years that working long hours is NOT necessarily working quality hours.  In fact, and this is something Schulte discusses in Overwhelmed, manual workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them (they produce no more stuff in an 10-hour day compared to an 8-hour one) because by hour 8, people’s best work is usually already behind them and by hour 9, they produce at a fraction of their typical capacity.  Hours 10-12 are done in exhaustion mode, so production is not anywhere near peak.  Manual workers have physically strenuous jobs so surely those who sit at their computer all day or who do “think work” should be able to pull those 50-70 hour work weeks, right?  Wrong. Knowledge workers have an average of about 6 “good” hours of productive, hard mental work.  As Robinson explains, knowledge workers may be at work for more than 6 hours but fill their days with meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, having lunch, or socializing.  Expecting “quality” work from a professor, lawyer, scientist, programmer, for 10+ hours a day will disappoint you.

The ideal norm-related research I’ve chosen to talk about here has a common link:  their findings with regard to men and fathers.

In recent research published in  the Academy of Management Perspectives investigating, among other things, how involved fathering affects work-related outcomes, authors Dr. Jamie J. LadgeDr. Beth K. HumberdDr. Marla Baskerville Watkins, and Dr. Brad Harrington interviewed 31 relatively new fathers and surveyed roughly 1,000 fathers employed in professional positions in Fortune 500 companies.  Their larger survey study revealed that when fathers stepped back from ideal work standards—by simply spending more time interacting with their children on a workday—they report lower levels of work-life conflict, greater work-to-family enrichment, lower intent to quit, and they are happier with their jobs.  Unless they have a supportive manager, these fathers also report somewhat of a lower sense of career identity.  There is convincing research that suggests men and fathers are penalized when they step back from work to caregive or even ask to have a schedule that allows them to, say, leave work early to see their child’s soccer games (an entire journal special issue was devoted to this issue two years ago).

A new article published by David S. Pedulla and Sarah Thébaud and in the American Sociological Review  and summarized here finds that a majority of men (in their sample, 63% of men with some college education and about 82% of men with less education) want to share domestic, caregiving and work duties with their female spouses.  What stops them from this favored state of equilibrium, you ask?  Their (accurate) perceptions of reality at work—that jobs do not allow much, if any, paid family leave, offer no subsidized childcare, and that few workplaces offer truly flexible work schedules. When men were told (by way of an experimental manipulation) to imagine working in a place in which all workers had access to paid family leave, subsidized childcare and flexible work schedules, even more men (and women) wanted to share home and work duties with their spouses.

What can we do?

The findings from the Ladge et al. study are promising for what they tell us about ideal worker norms:  a father’s interactions with his children during a workday—definitely NOT something the ideal worker was envisioned doing—especially if a father has a supportive manager, can yield benefits. These interactions benefit the fathers who report greater job satisfaction, lower work-life conflict, and greater work-to-family enrichment. They benefit the employer who experiences a lower likelihood of quitting among the fathers, and they likely benefits the spouses of the fathers who might feel reduced “overwhelm.”

The Pedulla and Thébaud piece is promising, suggesting that the way to change people’s attitudes about combining work and life (and, following that, their behavior regarding the combination) is to change the structure of work.  Give people feasible options to be “non-ideal” and they will take them.  Although the article did not study this, I imagine that when you let people live the life they want to, they will not shirk their work duties, stop caring about their jobs, or do “bad” work.  Instead, they will probably work better and more focused, knowing their non-work life is in order.

There are companies (and not just the big, international companies with massive HR departments and thousands of employees) that do this. Schulte describes a software company, Menlo Innovations with both a workplace design and scheduling conducive to combining work and life (read about it—apparently there constantly working long hours is a sign of inefficiency, not necessarily ideal work!).

We also need an overhaul of the definition of the ideal worker norm (both in minds of workers and employers). We talk about the importance of making work and life fit together better (President Obama even mentioned this in his State of the Union Address). But with the ideal worker norm as our guide, employers and workers are going to have a hard time doing this. We STILL use ideal work norms as an indicator of work commitment, especially for men for whom overwork as a marker of masculinity. Why can’t the “ideal worker” be someone who engages in quality work rather than one who works continuously full time? Why don’t we see working continuous, long hours a sign of inefficiency (or at least a sign someone needs to improve time management skills) rather than value?

Finally, sociologists who study work need to start asking different questions about work and family.  Again, Schulte points out that the General Social Survey, a survey widely used by sociologists to track social trends, asks respondents only whether women should work or stay at home following the birth of a child.  The survey has never asked the same of men.

There’s even something you can do, too.  The next time someone asks you how you are, think about this before you reply “Busy.”




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