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Sunday, September 30, 2001

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The overwork ethic

RECENTLY, I was in Hawaii on vacation. Poipu Beachin Kauai, to be exact. (If you haven't been, go. As soon as possible.) Believing that vacations are sacrosanct, I did not bring along my Compaq Presario. I did not check voice mail. And the only reading I brought to "catch up on" was a novel by John Irving. Furthermore, my voice mail message said - in a nice way, of course - that I would be on vacation and unable to return calls until the 24th.

Still, when I returned to my office, I had several messages that contained the following phrase: "I know you're on vacation, but if you're checking voice mail and it wouldn't be too much trouble could you please give me a call."

"Yes," I thought to myself as I listened to these messages, "it would have been too much trouble to call." With a book in one hand and a mai tai in the other, there are simply no hands left to dial the phone.

I've been worrying for a long time about the invasion of work into our private lives, but I'm starting to believe it's worse than a mere invasion. For many of us, work has become like the in-laws who refuse to leave at the end of a holiday - it has arrogantly assumed permanent residence in all parts of our lives. Worse yet, it seems we're beginning to accept it. That this is just how it is. Oh well. C'est la vie.

It's bad enough that bosses, co-workers and secretaries expect us to be available at all hours. But we are now expecting ourselves to work on demand at any time. The American work ethic has been replaced by the over-work ethic. Today, the most courageous people I know are those who choose to work part-time and are not ashamed to tell others about it.

The expectation that we should be ready for work at any time has unwittingly been reinforced by corporate human resources departments in a classic case of unintended consequences. Often, the very programmes initiated by HR to help alleviate employee stress only add to that stress by making it easier and more acceptable for people to work non-stop. As a result, work has become an accepted part of our private life - and, vice versa.

Telecommuting, for example, began as way to help employees avoid long commutes, take care of sick children and focus on special projects without interruption. But now, so many employees are used to working at home in old T-shirts that neither they, nor their employers, think it's unusual for them to review reports on Sunday morning or check e-mail after the nightly news.

On-site day-care is another initiative filled with good intentions. But while it's certainly alleviated stress for working parents, it's also made our child-rearing practices much more public. Today, people at work know how we dress our kids when we're late for work, as well as how often we visit those kids during the day. Formerly private practices are now fodder for workplace gossip.

The willingness of companies to pay for cell phones and laptop computers has also become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, mobile technology makes it easier for employees to work from anywhere. On the other, it makes it easier for employees to work from anywhere. Enough said. Anyone with a cell phone knows what I'm talking about.

Employee assistance programmes designed to help employees with everything from substance abuse to weight loss to grief management have also practically eliminated the line between our work and private lives. I'm glad I'm self-employed because I really don't want my editors to see me on a Stairmaster or know that I'm divulging some secret shame to a company therapist.

Finally, while I applaud employers who are paying attention to the widespread search for meaning at work, I don't think "meaning" would be as much of an issue "at work" if we had time to find it elsewhere in our lives.

While I don't advocate getting rid of any of these HR initiatives, I am concerned about how blurred the boundaries between public and private, work and family, and labour and leisure have become. We've been able to justify many HR efforts because they do seem to increase productivity. But is the economic measure the best measure to use when we're talking about people's lives? Sure, these programmes make good corporate sense, but do they also make the best sense from a humanitarian standpoint? What larger problems are we creating for ourselves when we use corporate productivity as the justification for programmes that affect the way we live?

Currently, many of us are willing to exchange our private time for work because the economy is good and we're seeing financial rewards from our efforts. Jobs are plentiful, money is being made, our retirement accounts are growing, our bathrooms are being remodelled.

But what happens when the stock market starts to slide and unemployment creeps up? If we're expected to devote our lives to work in a good economy, what happens when we become desperate to keep our jobs? What new standards of productivity will we use to justify overwork at that point? Will our private lives become nothing but a dim memory?

I wish I had answers to these questions - I wish somebody had answers to these questions. Maybe there is no answer. But it's worth acknowledging the fact that these are choices we are making collectively. Together, we are creating a culture where work is colonising all areas of our life. You can say what you want on voice mail before vacation, but people will still expect you to drop your suntan lotion and respond.


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