Slack or Heart Attack: Which Is It, Corporate America?

The headlines couldn’t help but attract my attention as an interesting juxtaposition of workplace trends on the same day: Surveys Find Workers Only Average Three Productive Days a Week, and Survey: Third of Americans are overworked. Then couple that with a little March Madness and computer solitaire, which according to some, brings workplaces to a grinding halt, and an article that says heart attacks are increasingly being caused by too much work, and who knows what to think?

Productivity may not seem like that big of an issue, but it plays a key role in our economy, job markets, unemployment statistics, and the quality of our lives. Productivity is supposed to be a good thing: productive workers make more money for their employers, who in turn are supposed to reward their employees with higher wages. But it hasn’t been working out that way lately. According to the Economic Policy Institute, over the last three years, productivity has increased by a whopping 12%, while average family income has declined by 3%. (See Economic Snapshot for Sept. 8, 2004.) Workers are pressured to be more and more productive, just to keep their jobs, not because they’re sharing in the wealth generated from their productivity.

For a third of those surveyed, the pressure is too much. In a recently released Families & Work Institute study, Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much, one out of three workers report being chronically overworked. (See Associated Press story.) Unsurprisingly, employees at companies that had gone through layoffs were more likely to be overworked — 42% compared to the 27% of those at companies where payrolls remained steady. More than a third of workers said they are not taking their full allotment of vacation time.

And even more frightening, overwork doesn’t just affect stress levels and vacation usage. Scientists believe it is becoming a matter of life and death. Studies from around the world all are starting to point in the same direction, according to the latest research in the field: “The longer hours, faster pace and insecurity typical of many new jobs is taking a toll on workers’ hearts.”

U.S. and Japanese workers who put in more than 50 hours a week had markedly higher rates of hypertension, a precursor to heart disease. In Belgium, stressful jobs — defined as highly demanding with little decision-making authority — appeared to elevate the blood pressure of workers even as they slept. China’s embrace of rapid economic change has been accompanied by surges in cardiovascular disease that have overwhelmed urban hospitals. And in one small Norwegian town two years ago, the mere rumor of a plant closure was enough to raise overall blood pressure for months.

(See Los Angeles Times article.)

Yet no matter how much time workers must spend at work, or how hard they are required to work, some say that much more productivity is possible. According to those responding to a Microsoft Office survey, workers say that as much as a third of their workweek on average is unproductive, due to “unclear objectives, lack of team communication and ineffective meetings.” See Press Release of March 15. Microsoft’s survey was a self-selecting one, so possibly only the folks with extra time on their hands (waiting for a meeting to start, perhaps?) are filling out the surveys, while the chronically overworked don’t have time to waste responding to a survey. However, when findings like this are widely released, it lends credence to the idea that workers can always be pushed to work even harder than they are working already.

And then there are the offices that might as well shut down between mid-March and early April’s NCAA Championship, when March Madness becomes more virulent than any of the latest strains of avian flu. According to one survey, over 77% of online respondents say they will participate in an office pool, and 72% plan to watch, listen or check stats of games online. More so, a surprising 43% claim they will be “less productive” on the job due to the tournament. (See Press Release of March 15.) Those who know me know I’m the last one to take issue with office pools, having participated in a few myself (and winning a couple!) But isn’t it a little ridiculous that while some workers constantly live in fear of their jobs and courting heart attacks, others can spend three weeks in the early spring poring over polls and swooning over Cinderellas? And just so you know, “The NCAA opposes all sports wagering. This bracket should not be used for sweepstakes, contests, office pools, or other gambling activities.” Yeah…right.

Perhaps the best solution is to cut workers a little slack–let them take their pleasures when they can. Playing solitaire on company time, even. In North Carolina, one legislator (who apparently, unlike his constituents, isn’t glued to Duke, North Carolina, and NC State games right now) wants to make sure that hard-earned tax dollars aren’t wasted by state employees playing solitaire during the work day. State Senator Austin Allran introduced legislation to make sure of it: the bill would force the free game to be deleted from the operating system of all state computers. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) Now that’s a solution in search of a problem, if I ever heard one. Besides, it’s clear that Sen. Allran isn’t attacking the real productivity menace in North Carolina right now, but that wouldn’t score him many votes now, would it?

Today, it’s solitaire, but who knows what is next: this is part of a larger battle over the heart and soul of the workplace. As one commentator puts it: “What employers today have to decide is whether permitting employees at certain prescribed times to gain some amount of psychic enjoyment by playing games will make up for some of the lost identity and pride in work.” In fact, allowing solitaire might “actually help productivity by giving workers a low-stress outlet in otherwise frantic days.” And if a heart attack or two is prevented along the way, then maybe it’s not so bad after all.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.