Home > Personal Finance > Why We Labor on Labor Day: The End of the 40-Hour Work Week

Comments 0 Comments

Once upon a time, Labor Day was a chance to take a break, and to honor those who fought to create the proper work-life balance.

Sounds like a fairy tale now. For many Americans, Monday was just another day to labor — if not at an office or factory, through a mobile phone or laptop while at the beach, or during the family barbecue. It took labor unions more than 100 years to fight for nights and weekends off; smartphones have taken them away in less than five years.

Another new survey shows that Americans aren’t unplugging and they aren’t resting, even during three-day weekends. The latest research, an online survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Silicon Valley tech startup Jive Software, showed that 90 percent of Americans say they work during non-working hours. More than one-third of Americans (37 percent) say they work more than 10 hours a week during personal time; fewer than half that number devote that much personal time to work in Great Britain.

The results, while self-reported, are consistent with study after study that show Americans are tethered to work by technology and can’t seem to break free. Oft-quoted data claims that average Americans put in 35 hours weekly in 1970, but 46 hours today, and that U.S. employees work 376 hours more annually than their German counterparts.

Average Hours Worked, U.S. vs. Germany

The Overworked American

Nailing down accurate overworked data is notoriously difficult — much of the popular data, such as the Jive survey, is self-reported, and workers are certainly prone exaggerate their hours.

Official Department of Labor statistics are less persuasive, showing worker hours during the past several decades are relatively flat, and some Federal Reserve data suggests worker hours are actually down slightly in recent years. Official data undercounts the overworked effect, however. It is skewed by a sharp rise in “involuntary” part-time work — in July, there were 8.6 million such workers, twice as many as 2006 — and doesn’t reflect the two-income phenomenon.

Recently, the St. Louis Fed released a nifty tool which puts the dreadful U.S. overwork phenomenon in clear view, however. Mapping U.S. hours worked vs. various European nations since 1950, it’s obvious that Americans are getting the short end of the stick and burning the wrong end of the candle. Beginning in the 1980s, U.S. worker hours began soaring past those in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and really any other first-world nation.

Vacation policies and social norms certainly have a lot to do with this. In the U.S., paid vacation is not required, and most workers get only two or three weeks. In Germany, four weeks is the minimum required by law. Perhaps more important, it’s customary for many Germans to take two or three week trips in August, effectively shutting down entire industries — and clearing the way for no-guilt vacations. In America, meanwhile, only 57 percent of U.S. workers even take all the vacation they’re entitled too.

Even those who are skeptical of the overworked American concept — and they do have a point, when U.S. workers are compared to factory workers in Asia or farm workers in Latin America — can’t deny the role technology has played in blurring the lines between work and home. The Internet, and particularly the rise of the smartphone, has made true separation from the office a near-impossibility. This phenomenon has sometimes been called “the Great Speed-Up,” as workers simply can’t seem to jump off the digital rat-wheel. The effect has shown up in government data, which indicates that 35 percent of Americans worked on weekends in 2011. It’s even more obvious in smartphone surveys. Users check their e-mail 150 times every day, according to industry research. Workers recently told researchers that 50 percent are expected to check their e-mail on weekends, and 34 percent while on vacation.

Taking a “Tech Sabbath”

It’s hard not to see that phenomenon through the eyes of the recession and slow labor recovery — workers who see the rise of part-time hiring are well aware they are disposable, and many are in no position to say “no” to a boss demanding weekend work.  But not everyone wants to blame technology or the economy for American workers’ bad balance. Laura Vanderkam, in her ebook, “What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekends,” argues that many workers simply lack the self-discipline needed to take a break. Workers sending e-mails to each other on nights and weekends simply create a dog-chasing-its-tail phenomenon, and that much of the work could wait.

Meanwhile, numerous organizations have sprung up with the goal of saving U.S. workers from themselves, pushing concepts like a “Tech Sabbath,” or “Digital Detox.” An organization called Reboot organizes an annual National Day of Unplugging; Take Back Your Time has an annual “Take Back Your Time Day.”

The benefits of rest are well documented, and research demonstrating the effectiveness of a 40-hour-work week goes back 100 years, to Henry Ford’s initial implementation.  Things people learn when tired are forgotten, as demonstrated by cramming college students everywhere.  Work done when fatigued is poor. Meanwhile, the list of horrible health consequences among overworked people is scary to read.  Here’s a quick summary of research, from the American Journal of Epidemiology:

  • “Long working hours have been found to be associated with cardiovascular and immunologic reactions, reduced sleep duration, unhealthy lifestyle, and adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, subjective health complaints, fatigue, and depression.”
  • “There is increasing evidence to suggest the importance of midlife risk factors for later dementia. Furthermore, the link between cognitive impairment and later life dementia is clearly established.”
  • “A cross-sectional study of 248 automotive workers found an association between overtime work and impaired performance on tests of attention and executive function … For example, deterioration in cognitive performance, including impaired grammatical reasoning and alertness, has been found in post versus pretest conditions among employees working 9- to 12-hour shifts compared with a traditional 8-hour shift.”

In other words, if you worked this weekend — even if you simply checked your smartphone while gnawing on corn-on-the-cob — you put your health at risk, not to mention your relationship, for no good reason.

It’s time to take the labor out of Labor Day, and most other nights and weekends, technology be damned.

Image: iStockphoto

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team