Meadville Tribune

Our Health

January 23, 2014

Why 'live to work' mindset wins out in U.S.

Overwork is not good for productivity. If you're doing physical labor, you get tired. If you're doing customer service, you get cranky. If you're sitting at a desk doing so-called knowledge work, you get stale and unimaginative. Moreover, these deficits are cumulative; the longer you work crazy hours, the more of a strain this puts on your productivity.

So why, over the past few decades, have knowledge workers come to work such long hours? A recent column by James Surowiecki explores the issue, and he hits a lot of good points. But I want to highlight one possibility that he doesn't mention: As work has gotten more specialized, the penalty for handing off work to multiple people has risen.

When people complain about work-family balance, they frequently complain that two people who each work 30 hours a week are paid much less than half as much as one person working 60 hours a week. Surowiecki notes that it's more expensive to hire two people (benefits, desks, etc.). But that's not the only cost. In specialized jobs, two people who are each working 30 hours a week may actually be much less productive than one working 60 — even if working 60 hours makes each of those hours much less productive than they could be.

The problem is that when work is specialized, each worker has individual knowledge about the job that has to be passed off to anyone else working on that job. If you split the job, you increase the amount of time that is spent telling the other person what you know ... and increase the risk that something will be missed because one person knew one thing and the other knew something else, and those two pieces of information never met in the same head.

More workers also means more time managing those workers. Ever been at a firm or department that went from five people to 35? How much more of your time got sucked up in meetings? As work teams grow, you start to need elaborate hierarchies of communication and control that absorb lots of time and require extra people whose jobs are just managing all the others.

And as the pace of communications has accelerated, it has paradoxically gotten more difficult to do without people. If you're an American working with folks in Europe, you quickly learn to write off the summer, because it's impossible to get anything done when everyone takes multiweek vacations. By the time one person gets back, the other person is off. This is maddening if you're working on anything time-sensitive.

This is not to say that the overcrowding of the American schedule is the right approach. I have the American tendency to fill every waking hour with work, as much as someone is willing to give me. After seven years of blogging professionally, I've come to realize that I have to force myself to take vacations — real ones, where the phone is off and I don't promise to work on just a couple of little tidbits, such as maybe a reported feature. Every time I come back from vacation, I dive back into work with new ideas and a lot more energy, and I think, "Why don't I do this more often?" And still, every year, I lose most of my vacation days.

Maybe U.S. employers should be more like the Economist, which, when I worked there, required you to take all your vacation — not "use it or lose it," just "use it." But you can see why they aren't, when most of the economic and cultural pressures run the other way.

1
Text Only
Our Health
  • Prescription for Medical Nutrition Therapy

    Nutrition is a vital part of being well, and an even more important part to getting well (or healing). It’s a critical part of prevention, yet if I surveyed physicians or lay people, and asked them “Does diet therapy work?” chances are at least 70 percent of them would say “No.”

    April 21, 2014

  • Is getting your daily ‘shot’ of caffeine OK?

    Can’t live without your daily dose of caffeine? I know many people who will go out of the way just to grab a fresh cup of Joe or any caffeine shot to jump start their day or combat that afternoon lull.

    March 17, 2014

  • How virus sleuths and public health officials track the cause of a mysterious illness

    When a mysterious disease fells people - as happened in California recently, with as many as 20 children experiencing unexplained paralysis - teams of physicians and epidemiologists quickly mobilize. Perhaps you saw the movie "Contagion"? The idea is to find the culprit before it spreads but also to prevent public panic.

    March 12, 2014

  • Enjoy the taste of eating right

    It’s National Nutrition Month, and I really love this year’s theme: “Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right.”

    March 11, 2014

  • ERIC-HOLDER.jpg Holder: Heroin deaths an 'urgent and growing public health crisis'

    Attorney General Eric Holder, calling the rise in deaths from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers an "urgent and growing public health crisis," is outlining a series of efforts by the Justice Department to combat the epidemic.

    March 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lilly's diabetes drug rejected by FDA

    A diabetes pill developed by Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim was rejected by U.S. regulators because of previously disclosed manufacturing deficiencies at a German plant that hadn't been resolved.

    March 5, 2014

  • Study says too much protein could lead to early death

    Even as researchers warned of the health risks of high-protein diets in middle age, they said eating more protein actually could be a smart move for people over 65.

    March 4, 2014

  • Do flu shots cause runny noses?

    The vaccine used in the study is similar to FluMist, of which 13 million doses were distributed in the United States this year. The work helps explain why runny noses were an occasional aftereffect of FluMist in clinical trials.

    March 4, 2014

  • Trying to lose weight? Reach for the nearest calico cat

    Interesting studies have discovered that cats may actually help us with weight loss.

    March 3, 2014

  • Six reasons childhood obesity has fallen so much

    A major new paper appearing in Wednesday's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that childhood obesity - age 2 to 5 - has fallen from 13.9 percent in 2003-04 to 8.4 percent in 2011-12.

    February 26, 2014

Business Marquee
AP Video
SKorea Ferry Toll Hits 156, Search Gets Tougher Video Shows Possible Syrian Gas Attack Cubs Superfans Celebrate Wrigley's 100th Raw: Cattle Truck Overturns in Texas Admirers Flock to Dole During Kansas Homecoming Raw: Erupting Volcanoes in Guatemala and Peru Alibaba IPO Could Be Largest Ever for Tech Firm FBI Joining Probe of Suburban NY 'Swatting' Call U.S. Paratroopers in Poland, Amid Ukraine Crisis US Reviews Clemency for Certain Inmates Raw: Violence Erupts in Rio Near Olympic Venue Raw: Deadly Bombing in Egypt Raw: What's Inside a Commercial Jet Wheel Well Raw: Obama Arrives in Japan for State Visit Raw: Anti-Obama Activists Fight Manila Police Motels Near Disney Fighting Homeless Problem Michigan Man Sees Thanks to 'bionic Eye' S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart Chief Mate: Crew Told to Escape After Passengers
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Stocks