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January 23, 2014

Why 'live to work' mindset wins out in US

Overwork is not good for productivity. If you're doing physical labor, you get tired. If you're doing customer service, you get cranky. If you're sitting at a desk doing so-called knowledge work, you get stale and unimaginative. Moreover, these deficits are cumulative; the longer you work crazy hours, the more of a strain this puts on your productivity.

So why, over the past few decades, have knowledge workers come to work such long hours? A recent column by James Surowiecki explores the issue, and he hits a lot of good points. But I want to highlight one possibility that he doesn't mention: As work has gotten more specialized, the penalty for handing off work to multiple people has risen.

When people complain about work-family balance, they frequently complain that two people who each work 30 hours a week are paid much less than half as much as one person working 60 hours a week. Surowiecki notes that it's more expensive to hire two people (benefits, desks, etc.). But that's not the only cost. In specialized jobs, two people who are each working 30 hours a week may actually be much less productive than one working 60 — even if working 60 hours makes each of those hours much less productive than they could be.

The problem is that when work is specialized, each worker has individual knowledge about the job that has to be passed off to anyone else working on that job. If you split the job, you increase the amount of time that is spent telling the other person what you know . . . and increase the risk that something will be missed because one person knew one thing and the other knew something else, and those two pieces of information never met in the same head.

More workers also means more time managing those workers. Ever been at a firm or department that went from five people to 35? How much more of your time got sucked up in meetings? As work teams grow, you start to need elaborate hierarchies of communication and control that absorb lots of time and require extra people whose jobs are just managing all the others.

And as the pace of communications has accelerated, it has paradoxically gotten more difficult to do without people. If you're an American working with folks in Europe, you quickly learn to write off the summer, because it's impossible to get anything done when everyone takes multiweek vacations. By the time one person gets back, the other person is off. This is maddening if you're working on anything time-sensitive.

This is not to say that the overcrowding of the American schedule is the right approach. I have the American tendency to fill every waking hour with work, as much as someone is willing to give me. After seven years of blogging professionally, I've come to realize that I have to force myself to take vacations — real ones, where the phone is off and I don't promise to work on just a couple of little tidbits, such as maybe a reported feature. Every time I come back from vacation, I dive back into work with new ideas and a lot more energy, and I think, "Why don't I do this more often?" And still, every year, I lose most of my vacation days.

Maybe U.S. employers should be more like the Economist, which, when I worked there, required you to take all your vacation — not "use it or lose it," just "use it." But you can see why they aren't, when most of the economic and cultural pressures run the other way.

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