Overworked & Underpaid

Wed, 12/03/2008 - 6:37am
By Carrie Ellis The U.S. has always made Europe seem like a lazy man’s paradise what with all of the holidays allotted to even the most menial of job positions. (According to a July 2008 article called “Putting In The Hours” in The Economist, Americans work 15 percent more hours on average than employees in the western European Union-assuming that a European were to work a “normal” 40-hour American workweek, the statistic would raise their week by six hours.) This contrast of Europe to the U.S. is becoming more and more concrete as our domestic economy continues its (thankfully slow yet) steady plummet into dwindling prosperity. Despite the economic downturn in the U.S., corporate expectations seem to be accelerating, forcing salary employees to work way more than a 40-hour workweek for 40 hours of pay. While salaries remain slow to catch up to the extra demand on employees, we’re left in the lurch wondering how much more we can do for less. As much as I’d like to say let’s blame the corporations, we all know that most American companies are in a pressure cooker of cost control tightening. (And if you didn’t know that, you should watch the news more.) Companies as a whole are facing more competition than ever as the global economy continues to grow, adding countless numbers of market players that may rip the stability right out from under a company’s feet. It’s becoming a struggle for companies not only to stay profitable, but also to try to insulate their financial situation as the economy has given no indication of an upswing in the recent future. Worse yet, you could work for one of those companies that are already behind in this game of playing profit catch-up. In July 2008, ran an article about a Japanese Toyota engineer who had literally worked himself to death. The man averaged 80 hours of overtime per month, which pans out to approximately 60-hour workweeks. This news struck home for me as my life is dictated by deadlines as yours is dictated by plant uptime. (The media industry in general has to be run by a “the show must go on” mantra to be able to accomplish the goal of distributing news in a timely fashion-for what good is old news? The processing industry is identical except that value stems from productivity, which is only a variant of the punctuality required in mine.) A colleague of mine also wrote a response column upon learning of this Japanese engineer’s misfortune, and readers’ sentiments on the subject were in line with mine-being that you don’t live to work, but rather work to live. However, no solutions were offered. While it’s difficult to accept, what more can be done other than the typical bourgeois bowing down to accept the economic situation? Give more to get less. While it’s becoming the norm to put in more hours during the workweek, it’s no consolation that everyone’s doing it. As Mother always said, “If so-and-so were to jump off a bridge, would you?” According to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, the average employed American works a 46-hour workweek, yet 38 percent of respondents reported working more than 50 hours per week. So I ask of you, do you find yourself putting in extra hours? If so, how are you dealing with it? Is this our economic fate? And what is to become of our society if this trend continues to follow the same self-destructive course? I’ll tell you one thing, if things worsen, what brought people to America in the first place-the American Dream-will be the exact thing driving them away in the future. I’d love to hear your opinion. Feel free to send me an e-mail at

I read "Overworked & Underpaid" with interest. I think America is better off for working longer/harder. I believe people work longer for their own personal satisfaction … Certainly I do. And it is not to please someone else, nor do I get paid for it. Im not suggesting that people work themselves to death as in the Japanese example. In fact, I do not know what his problem was! Was he getting paid for working longer? Thanks, PK

Dear Ms. Ellis, It was brave of you to write the piece about people in the U.S. working much longer hours to keep their jobs these days. Having left corporate life 28 years ago to start my own marketing communications agency, along with my wife and partner, I have become accustomed to very long days and weeks that can exceed 60 hours of labor. One does what one must. It troubles me that while my lifestyle is driven by choice/consequences that another person, working in somebody else's business, might find himself/herself feeling exploited and helpless in the face of work pressures and the expectation to work more for less. Perhaps the compact between working people and where they work needs public examination, as you have suggested in your editorial. Most people wouldn't have the guts to point out that fairness produces better results than firmness. Those Europeans who seem to luxuriate in their six weeks of vacation and liberal use of holidays, in fact, are more productive in their working hours than the over-stressed Americans who complain all the time about how hard they work. We could take a lesson from Euroland and start living as well as many of them, in fact, do. Yours truly, Colvin Communications Inc., Arlington Heights, IL

Carrie: I really enjoyed your article, but I am at a loss for words. There is no answer to the fact that our standard of living must decrease here in America in order to become competitive with the rest of the world. While the standard of life in the developing countries improves, our standard will decline. Eventually, they will equilibrate, and we can compete on an even basis. I used to say to myself that when my job interferes with my ability to sleep well at night, that it would be time to change jobs. While I still believe this to be true, the ability to pick and choose jobs is becoming more difficult. Anonymous

Apparently, you and I have the same Mother. This environment is more of a management "technique" (crack-the-whip). It really shows that more is lacking from a management standpoint than the workers' [standpoint]. They have no clue how to motivate people ("Clean your room or else!"). It really can get quite pitiful (except that it deeply affects families). Everyone wants a "challenge" and deep down to please, but after you've worked on a few milestones (and had no input to the schedule/duration) to be completed by an arbitrary COB, and upon completion, discovered that the boss had left early, YOU LEARN. This country suffers from a severe lack of quality management personnel:

  • No foresight.
  • Lack of motivational skills.
  • Reactionary [control].
  • Bean counters.
  • No experience.
  • No worker involvement in planning and scheduling.
Increasing goals every year by 10 percent (a favorite for math-handicapped managers) is not a skill. Playing the blame game is not a skill. Solve the problem, then determine the cause to preclude a reccurrence. Derogatory remarks and threats (implied or overt) are not motivating; rather, it shows a shortcoming by the manager. If you allow workers to provide planning/scheduling input, they are a "stakeholder" and feel a personal responsibility to complete the task (self-motivation). Work is work, but we all need to feel good about what we do. Constant "challenges" and berating quickly kill incentive, which in turn, erodes productivity. After reading the above, you may think that I am in a bad situation. On the contrary, I have a really good boss. I know this because I see the aforementioned in all the groups around me. The turnover/burnout ratio is high, but not in my group. Charlie


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