::Literate Blather::
Monday, July 10, 2006
Essay: Exhausted America

Meet Doug Goldberg.* He’s 39 years old and works as a vice president for a large software company in Massachusetts. He’s married and has three children. Every week day, Doug leaves his house at 6:30 a.m. before his wife and children are awake. He drives to work in gridlock traffic on Route 128. On a good day, he’s sitting at his desk with a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee at 7:20 a.m., but on bad days (when it rains or snows, it can be as late as 8 a.m.).

At work, Doug digs in. He manages several in-house accounts and is responsible for as many five separate projects. Five years ago in his industry, Doug would have had about five or six employees under him, but cut-backs have given him a staff of two.

Most nights, Doug leaves work at 6:30 p.m. and arrives home at about 7:30 p.m. (his youngest daughter is often already in bed when he gets home). With commuting time, Doug is gone for about 13 hours a day – 11 of those hours at work for an average work week of 55 hours.

Doug is 15-20 pounds overweight (most of it settled in his belly). He has high blood pressure and takes medication to thin his blood. The medicine sometimes keeps him up at night, but he has troubling sleeping anyway. “If I start thinking about work, my head starts buzzing and I just can’t turn off,” he admits.

He’d liked to exercise more, but he’s too tired and hungry when he gets home from work. Most nights, he and his wife eat dinner in front of the television. He generally trudges off to bed at 11 p.m.

Doug is becoming the norm. The statistical evidence paints a grim picture of the average American worker.

We’ve lost the ability to sleep:

  • 70 million Americans suffer from sleeping problems, according to the Institute of Medicine
  • 40 percent of American adults experience symptoms of insomnia each year, according to the National Institute of Health.
  • Americans spent $2.8 billion dollars on sleeping aids last year alone, double what we spent in 2001.

We’ve forgotten the benefits of hammocks:

  • Americans will forsake a total of 574 million vacation days in 2006, according to Expedia.com’s Sixth Annual Vacation Deprivation Survey.
  • The number of U.S. businesses offering paid vacation time decreased in 2004 to 68 percent compared with 87 percent in 2003, according to the study by the Society for Human Resource Management.
  • One in six U.S. employees in 2000 did not use up their annual vacation allotment despite the U.S. having the least amount of vacation time in the industrialized world (about 14 days), according to a study by Oxford Health Plans.

We no longer whistle while we work:

  • The productivity of the average American has doubled since 1948, according to Juliet B. Schor, author of The Overworked American, meaning that American workers could enjoy the same standard of living in 1948 by working only six months a year
  • More than a quarter of U.S. workers in 2004 said they had difficulties balancing their work and personal life while 21 percent blamed their work for frequent mood changes, according to USA Today

And we’re starting to develop distracting facial tics:

  • 40 percent of U.S. workers report their job is very or extremely stressful, according to a survey by Northwestern National Health
  • 26 percent of American workers say they are often or very often burned out or stressed by their work, according to a survey by the Families and Work Institute
  • Three-fourths of American workers believe today’s employees have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago, according to the Princeton Survey Research Associates

Blame the Puritan work ethic, Corporate America, or our over-consumption addiction, but the fact is American workers are exhausted. We’ve become bleary-eyed pod workers with caffeine problems, irritated bowels, and vitamin D deficiencies. If we were mules the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would have already stepped in on our behalf.

And yet no one really wants to acknowledge the problem.

Overworked is a badge of honor in the United States. We swap stories about impossible work hours like baseball players recounting homeruns. Professional workers like Doug remain connected to work through Blackberries, cell phones, and pagers. It’s like a giant retractable leash pulling us back to work at the most unlikeliest of times. The mainstream media even brags about our work productivity – ignoring the fact that we’re working ourselves into early graves (coronary heart disease, often caused by stress, remains the biggest killer in the U.S. accounting for one in five deaths).

This is an issue that should have political clout, but there is no mass movement afoot to increase or mandate vacation time for workers. Despite movements by the religious right to put family first most of the political effort has been concentrated on banning gay marriage and fighting the legality of abortion. The left hasn’t made it an issue either and with dwindling membership in labor unions, it’s unlikely to become a political issue any time soon.

So while workers in Europe and Australia revel in government-mandated vacations of four weeks a year, U.S. workers like Doug Goldberg can enjoy our average of 8.1 days of vacation a year and remind the rest of world that we might be exhausted, but we’re damn productive.

*Not his real name

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