Report: Work Increasing, So is Stress

Dayton Daily News - September 3, 2001
   

Dayton Daily News

A new report released during the weekend revealed what most people probably intuitively knew already: that Ohioans, and Americans as a whole, are working harder and longer than ever each week.

What’s more, despite substantial leaps in productivity, workers aren’t being rewarded for their extra toil. Wages and benefits have stagnated relative to the amount of hours logged on the job, according to The State of Working Ohio 2001 , a report sponsored by the liberal, nonprofit research firm Policy Matters Ohio.

That means people have to work more just to enjoy the standard of living they’ve already achieved. The natural consequences of this uncompensated labor are increased job stress and anxiety, according to workplace observers. Throw in the extra pressure put on employees by the recent surge in layoffs, and the incursion on leisure time by cell phones, e-mail and other office trappings, they said, and you’ve got a workforce near the breaking point.

“It’s not at all clear where this cycle is leading us,” said Mark Cassell, an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University who helped author the report. “Five years from now, if we keep going the way we’re going, what will a typical work week look like? It’s pretty scary.”

Using statistics culled from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, Cassell and co-author Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, found that, between 1979 and 1999, married couples in Ohio increased their annual work hours by 16.1 percent to 3,665 hours from 3,157 hours. The 500-hour jump equates to more than twelve additional weeks of work per year, or more than 10 additional hours of work per week.

As the number of hours worked and productivity both rose, however, wage increases didn’t keep pace, the report said. Between 1984 and 1999, median household income in Ohio rose 6.9 percent from $37,077 to $39,617. That increase wasn’t attributable so much to wage hikes, Cassell said, as the fact that more people, particularly women, entered the workforce during those years.

While household income leveled off, nonwage compensation for Ohio workers dropped. According to the report, between 1979 and 1999 the percentage of private-sector employees in Ohio receiving health-care benefits fell to 65 percent from 77 percent. Pension coverage also decreased, falling to 57.1 percent from 59.9 percent.

Predictably, these trends, which match those occurring at the national level, have led to a growing sense of workplace disenchantment. One recent poll found that 56 percent of American workers say that they work under a great deal of stress, and 57 percent say their workloads have increased in the past six months. The poll also found that one-third of workers leave work on time less than two days a week.

Another poll found that, even when they do go home, 43 percent of workers spend time in their off-hours dealing with work issues or on call to deal with work issues.

The pervasiveness of work-induced stress runs counter to the futurist philosophy of some economists and professors, who not so long ago argued that productivity gains would allow American workers to take more vacations and scale their work weeks back to 30 hours.

Bill Piecuch, of Dayton-based Northstar Consulting Group, said he remembers those predictions and used to look forward to a more leisurely lifestyle. But he said he’s living proof that the futurists were wrong: his work weeks have steadily increased during the years and vacations are more elusive than ever.

“Here I am today . . . working about 60 to 65 hours a week,” said Piecuch, 68. “Sure I like what I do. But with a clientele that expects daily attention, it becomes more difficult to put together a week’s vacation. I can honestly say that in the last 30 years I have had only one period where I had two weeks off together.”

Piecuch added that a three-week vacation “is as realistic today as a Perry Como hit song.”

The economic downturn and subsequent wave of corporate layoffs have made increased workloads an unavoidable fact of life for many American workers, said Don Atkins, 49, who works in the shipping department at the Corning Inc. plant in Greenville. Responding to a steep downturn in the fiber-optic market, Corning has slashed thousands of jobs from its payrolls this year.

“With all of the downsizing going on, what two or three people used to do, now one person is doing,” Atkins said. “It’s putting a lot of pressure on American laborers, and we’re not even getting much of a thank-you for our efforts.”

Dr. Robert Friedberg, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology, said the pain people feel when they’re overworked is very real.

“This type of emotional distress is not pathological,” Friedberg said. “People working more and not getting recognized is what’s called ‘loss of reinforcement.’ It includes everything from pay to time off to vacations. Without those kinds of rewards, depression can follow.”

It wouldn’t be fair, however, to place all of the blame on employers, according to Atul Dighe, an analyst at the Institute for Alternative Futures. American workers are pretty good, he said, at bringing stress on themselves.

“I think it goes back to our Puritanical work ethic,” Dighe said. “Working hard – working too much, really – is just part of who we are and what we do. We don’t know how to relax.”

Dean McFarlin, a professor at the University of Dayton’s School of Business Administration, said workers often drive themselves into self-imposed depression in the pursuit of better lifestyles.

“People have more control than they realize,” McFarlin said. “It is possible to have your cake and eat it, too, but it takes some sacrifices. People need to look more closely at themselves and at the companies and careers that can give them what they want.”

Contact Christopher Montgomery at 225-2348 or e-mail him at cmontgomery@coxohio.com

Print Friendly