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Rethinking Work: Replacing the Treadmill With Time, Flexibility, and Happiness

If time is money, and you don’t need a ton of money, then you should have more time.

Americans work 1,778 hours a year, and nearly 11 percent of U.S. employees put in more than 50 hours a week. It’s what you do with most of your time, aside from sleeping and eating.

The reason we work is simple: we need to pay for the things that keep us fed, safe, and comfortable. But do we really need to work as much as we do?

It has long been the pattern to continue to work long after our basic needs are met. Working for a new car and bigger house has been the hallmark of America for generations. Having time to think, sleep, eat a home-cooked meal, and talk to your family has come second to chasing higher incomes—but is it worth it? As people, we should be more than just consumers.

During the current post-economic slump, there is underemployment, especially for young people, and now is the time to talk about readjusting our employment expectations. There are different ways of boosting your mental well-being and being able to dedicate time to something other than paid employment. Various strategies used by employers and governments include four-day or 35-hour workweeks, increased flexibility, and job sharing.

In a recent four-year experiment, state employees in Utah transitioned to a four-day (though still 40-hour) workweek, and 82 percent of participants surveyed preferred it. The number of sick days fell by 9 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions dropped because of the reduced commuting days. Best of all, employees had a three-day weekend every week!

During the Great Recession, many people lost their jobs, and those with jobs felt grateful not to be out in the cold. As the economy rebuilds, additional work is being given to those remaining employees. This means that as one segment of the labor force is being overworked, another section is still unemployed and desperate for work. By encouraging a shorter workweek, employers could hire more people, but for less time. We need a readjustment of employment to ensure that more people have work but aren’t overworked.

The French adopted a 35-hour week for most of the 2000s. Many critics referred to it as a “straightjacket” because it resulted in bureaucratic inefficiencies. Some large corporations, afraid of losing their workforces, threatened to move abroad. There are lessons to be learned from the French. By using a less enforcing and more encouraging system to move to a healthier work/life balance, the U.S. could achieve many of the same benefits as were seen in France, among them increased physical fitness, more stable personal relationships, happier children, and a strengthening of community groups.

A government-enforced system of a reduced workweek is unlikely to materialize in America. Creativity must come from individual employers. Generation Y is especially interested in flexibility in their schedules. The “entitled” label given to today’s 20-somethings can be considered a demand for respect that has been long denied to workers. The labor force in this age group believes that they are too talented to sit in a cubicle.

This shouldn’t be taken by older generations as an unwillingness to work, or even as getting too big for their boots. Life really is too short to rot away in a job that isn’t fulfilling, especially if it’s tarnished with a lack of respect, for long hours every week. A lesson could be learned from this generation and their commitment to standards of living that center more on lifestyle than on material things.

A person may think of many arguments for why they might be happier and healthier if they worked a little less. Now we must pressure employers to accept flexibility over rigidity. Evaluations based on performance rather than hours clocked would in many circumstances eliminate the need to pay employees for time spent idle. Policymakers and employers should consider new structures of employment that will get the best out of happier workers.

Hayley Schultz is a nature and vegetarian cuisine lover living in Boise, Idaho. When she’s not exploring the Northwest and its scenic wonders, she writes for Vooluu.com, a start-up website focused on sustainable and local living.

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Comments

Em – Unfortunately, catastrophic health insurance isn’t available in every state. In New Jersey, where I live, this kind of high-deductible plan isn’t allowed. You can get a “basic and essential” plan for a few hundred dollars per month, but it has a fairly low coverage cap and thus doesn’t do what insurance is meant to do: protect you against catastrophic loss.

Posted by Amy at March 13, 2013 at 6:41pm

Bri – You can buy catastrophic health insurance for a reasonable rate. I purchased it for less than $100 a month a few years ago. If we weren’t part of such a bloated and regulated health care system already, doctors would not need to charge so much for their services and we could afford basic non-catastrophic services without regular health insurance. You might try finding a doctor who will work with you to accept cash for minor health issue visits, and maintain catastrophic insurance to guard against losing everything.

Posted by Em at March 12, 2013 at 12:22pm

Peter-
Thanks for the good example of work-life balance being implemented in a constructive way!

Bri-
Healthcare and this issue are entwined and you bring up a good point that this is a way that employers can control their staff. This is a good reason to support universal healthcare!
 

Posted by Hayley Schultz at March 4, 2013 at 1:17pm

Love this article! I’ve thought for many years that a four-days workweek would be better for many different reasons. Thank you for sharing this info with all of us!

Posted by Aran at March 2, 2013 at 11:41am

Two words…Health Insurance. This idea might take off, if we weren’t so dependent on health insurance (in the U.S., of course – in most other countries this can and probably is a viable option).

I have lived below my means for many years. Now, I have the freedom to work less and travel more, but can’t because of limited vacation days and lack of insurance (if I were to go part time). I’m healthy, but the thought of losing everything I’ve scraficed for if I were to get sick or injured, keeps me from branching out.

I know there are options, but health insurance is a big reason companies have the “upper hand” in making us “slaves to production.”

Posted by Bri at March 2, 2013 at 8:49am

Great article – our company has moved to ‘core hours’ which means from 9 to 3 you are expected to be in the office working, the hour before and 2 hours after are flex, based on your family life. Some need to leave early for daycare pick up and come in later than 8 after daycare drop off. The hours remain the same, you just work around it and adjust according to your life style. Also, they implemented a Team Development and Corporate Culture which allows a lot of dialog between workers and employers. Suggestions are taken seriously and implemented where feasible. Also, they started a couple years ago with COLA, cost of living which gets adjusted when the numbers come out in march – you get the difference added to your next paycheck for the months of January, February and part of March – to match Cola for 12 months. This is an annual increase of pay of about 1 to 2% before the review which could add another couple percent on top. So you’re always looking at a raise, then a raise on top. It is putting the workers in a very positive and safe position to stay with the company for the long run, creates a culture of fun, respect, unity. It has been a great effort on our company’s part to initiate this and to carry it through. Each year we fill out a survey and the results are tabulated by an independent company and the results are shared with the entire company. Then a plan gets put into place to implement improvements company wide.

Posted by Peter Koning at March 1, 2013 at 8:18pm

Eva,

Thanks for reading. Hopefully one day you will be in a position where you can influence these types of policies!

Posted by Hayley Schultz at March 1, 2013 at 6:13pm

Well written article it brings up several exellent points regarding sustainable performance in the workplace which I believe is an area of management very often poorly executed.

Posted by Kelvin Leslie at February 28, 2013 at 8:33pm

Nice article!

Posted by Peter Buffington at February 28, 2013 at 9:36am

Hayley—
Boy is it nice to see a company that promotes working fewer hours and a better quality of life. I like the concept that you are promoting: that of working fewer hours but letting more people work. As I read your post, I couldn’t help but think of the difference it would have made to our marketing department in the past year if we followed your model.

About 14 months ago, my company had to lay off a significant percentage of its employees—most divisions lost about 20% of their staff, but our marketing department was hit particularly hard. Of our 6 staff, 2 were laid off, and 1, by unhappy coincidence, gave his two-weeks’ notice at the same time, and was not replaced. This resulted in an overall 50% personnel loss to our marketing department, and approximately doubled the workload of everyone who remained. As a result of this, one of the remaining three chose to find a new job just a few months later. Unfortunately, that employee also acted as the administrator for the highly complex (and expensive) marketing software that we had recently purchased. A new marketing writer was hired to replace him, but this knowledge loss took its toll: we have barely used this software in the past year. A few weeks ago, our company finally paid for the software vendor to come onsite and teach us how to use it—and we all realized what a powerful tool this could be for us. We are now starting to use it and believe it will help our efforts immensely—but I can only guess what the opportunity cost has been for the past 14 months.

If our company followed your model, the layoff wouldn’t have been necessary, so the overworking of everyone else wouldn’t have occurred. If we hadn’t been overworked, the employee who changed jobs probably wouldn’t have done so (and if he had it would have mattered less—as the two who had been let go also understood the software), meaning we would have been using our marketing software more effectively for the past year, likely meaning we would have had greater marketing success in the past year, and thus, more sales and profit for our company overall.

Posted by Eva at February 27, 2013 at 11:41pm

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