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John Tulinsky – Reflection

by on October 17, 2007

Questioning American Values

Americans work more hours per week and have fewer days off than workers in any other developed nation (Suroweicki, J.; 2005). A number of blog posts have touched upon work/life balance and the general expectation of long hours and hard work. The Fast Company article commentaries by Usha and Daylen and a comment posted by Rachel in response to my own article review are a few examples. The expectation of long hours at work generally goes unquestioned. I believe this is unfortunate because excessive workplace demands have negative effects not just on individuals and families but on society—including businesses and the economy—as a whole. I intend to explore this issue in greater depth.

It’s easy to dismiss stress-related problems. Long hours and hard work have become so commonplace that most people simply accept them as part of life. However, multiple peer-reviewed studies published in respected medical journals have shown that the effect of stress on people is measurable and very real. Here are just a few examples;

· 43% of adults suffer adverse health effects from stress and 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related complaints (Kiffer, J.F.; 2006).
· Stressful jobs increase the risk of a heart attack in both men and women. The effect is measurable in individuals as young as 35 years old. Following their first heart attack people working in stressful jobs are more than twice as likely to have a second heart attack within two years (Aboa-Eboule, C. et al; 2007).
· Stress has been linked to increased susceptibility to depression, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, asthma, other autoimmune diseases and a generally less effective immune system (Cohen, S. et al; 2007).
· Stress is associated with alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse, domestic violence and with obesity. All of these conditions lead to many different health problems (Kiffer, J.F.; 2006).
· Family strains and long work hours are listed as the cause of many divorces (Marriage and Divorce; 2005).

I believe that there are three strong arguments why business people should be concerned about the long hours and high pressure that’s part of the American work place. The first is the moral argument. Is it ethical to build a business by squeezing employees until they break? The second argument is one of fairness. Some companies penalize employees for unhealthy lifestyles by charging them more for health insurance (Keim, B.; 2007). Given rapidly-growing health care costs it’s likely that this trend will continue. Is it fair to demand that employees maintain good health in their personal lives when the workplace itself is the cause of so much damage? Historically, insurance companies have driven much healthcare-related change, for example by lobbying for the requirement that all cars be equipped with passive restraints and by supporting the drive to eliminate smoking. It’s conceivable that insurance companies will punish employers for stressful work environments by charging higher premiums. A related argument and the one that is the easiest to defend is that of bottom-line costs. The costs that businesses bear because of the stressful work environment are enormous. Think of the health care costs associated with any one of the bullet points above. In addition to health care costs consider that stressful jobs are important contributors to high absenteeism rates and low morale and it’s easy to see that it’s in an employer’s self-interest to provide a better work environment.

I anticipate that a common response to this reflection will be, “Of course I’d like to have more time to relax, but what can I do? If I don’t put in the hours then my employer will find someone who will.” I’d like to write a preemptive rebuttal. We all work within the context of a specific organizational culture and of our society as a whole and there are limits to what is within our power to achieve. However, as Max pointed out in his post about the innovative leadership practices of a Navy captain, simply doing something because it has always been done that way and that’s how everyone else does it is an ineffective way to lead change. Strong leadership requires creative thinking and the courage to challenge the status quo. Without it, nothing will ever change.

References

Aboa-Eboule, C.; Brisson, C.; Maunsell, E.; Masse, B.; Bourbonnais, R.; Vezina, M.; Milot, A.; Theroux, P.; Dagenais, G.R. (2007). Job Strain and Risk of Acute Recurrent Coronary Heart Disease Events. JAMA, 298, 1652-1660.

Cohen, S.; Janicki-Deverts, D.; Miller, G.E. (2007). Psychological Stress and Disease. JAMA, 298, 1685-1687.

Keim, B. (2007, July 30). Lose Weight or Pay Up, Company Tells Workers. Wired Science. Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/07/lose-weight-or-.html.

Kiffer, J.F. (2006). The Effects of Stress on Your Body. WebMD Special Report. Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://www.webmd.com/content/pages/7/1674_52147.htm.

Marriage and Divorce; (2005). National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/divorce.htm.

Surowiecki, J. (2005, November 28). No Work and No Play. The New Yorker. Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/11/28/051128ta_talk_surowiecki.

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