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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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