WORK/LIFE BALANCING ACT

Is ‘always on’ the new normal?

 
 
Jorge Gonzalez walks through the office with his smartphone and laptop, the two tools that keep him constantly connected. He works as a recruiter at Albion Staffing Solutions and says he's "always on."
Jorge Gonzalez walks through the office with his smartphone and laptop, the two tools that keep him constantly connected. He works as a recruiter at Albion Staffing Solutions and says he's "always on."
C.W. GRIFFIN / Miami Herald Staff

balancegal@gmail.com

I sit in the park, watching my son’s lacrosse practice and typing on my laptop. By the time he is done, I will have put in at least a solid hour of work and I will relish in how much better life has become since I had to stay late at the office behind a desktop computer screen to finish an article.

But with this ability to work where and when I want comes another reality: I’m always on. Sitting leisurely on the sideline at a sports practice is a luxury in which few working parents indulge. Around me are dads shooting off emails from their iPhones and mothers returning client calls.

For those of us with any level of responsibility, a 9 to 5 work day just isn’t a reality. As Miami publicist John David points out: “Work starts the moment you look at your phone in the morning.” Now, more of us who feel like we are working longer hours than we used to are asking, what is an average work day or work week, anyway?

According to the recent American Time Use Survey, Americans ages 25-54 spent almost nine hours a day working or in work-related activities. That compares to about 7.5 to eight hours they spent on job responsibilities just five years ago.

For benefit purposes, many companies consider a minimum of 30 hours a week to be full time, which also is the case with Obamacare’s mandate. While that may be the minimum, most salaried employees now say they regularly work more than 40 hours and recruiters report that employers expect longer hours from professionals.

“They [job candidates] are going to agree to work whatever hours they have to because they know that there are 10 people behind them, and someone else will fill the spot,” explains Jorge Gonzalez, a partner in Albion Staffing Solutions in Doral.

Gonzalez said companies are strategic in issuing smartphones and tablets to staff to encourage “always on.” “It gives them accessibility to their workers anytime, so the work day could extend as long as the company and the customer dictate. Some people hear the beep at 1 a.m., and they will respond.”

Staffing professionals say they see more employers who advertise salaried jobs as 40-plus hours and more employees willing to take them — but not everyone. “I think it’s important for employers to be truthful when they are hiring,” said Debra Bathurst, vice president of human resources at Oasis Outsourcing in South Florida. “Some people can’t work over 40 hours. If there is an additional five or six hours of overtime or Saturdays expected, we recommend our clients discuss that up front.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly how much Americans are working, particularly because the number of part-time jobs has risen. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a gradual rising trend in work hours through the 1990s that just recently tapered off, hovering at slightly more than 40 hours weekly.

Even for people who aren’t spending quite as many more hours working as they think they are, there is an explanation for why some might feel over-burdened, anyway. When you pair our connectivity with the fact that more women are in the workforce and there are fewer hours when anyone is taking care of household chores, that leaves less pure leisure time once we’re off work.

For the most part, Americans who are working longer hours are white-collar workers who do not punch a clock, don’t necessarily track their hours and have clients or customers to satisfy regardless of the time of day.

Jonathan Lieberman, CEO of Miami cloud computing company Itopia, points out while his team puts in much more than 40 hours a week, the hours are staggered. Instead of working long hours in the office as they grow the business and service customers, they may check in at various times and from various places throughout the day and night. “When we hire people, they come in with the understanding they are joining a company where they will be asked to work at all hours of the day or if clients need them. We mitigate that by being more flexible as to what the work week means.”

As the culture of workplaces evolves, the debate now is whether longer hours and constant connectivity lead to additional productivity and profitability. Some researchers assert just the opposite is true. In a 2012 article in Salon, “Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week,” social futurist Sara Robinson writes that business owners across many sectors discovered that when they cut workers hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable. She also asserts that excessive overtime and lack of sleep are bad for productivity, adding that most workers have six good hours in them a day.

That has long been the contention of Timothy Ferris, author of the four-hour work week. He claims Americans don’t need to work long hours and that streamlining work, eliminating distractions and disconnecting can lead to the same work in less time.

As the workweek debate rages on, CEOs, researchers, economists and life coaches have their ideas of exactly how much time workers should be logging in. But if you think a shorter work will make you happier, you might want to take note: South Korea changed its labor regulations in 2004, reducing the work week to five days a week from six and 40 hours from 44. Researchers then found that those who worked fewer hours were not any happier than those who worked longer hours.

Meanwhile, wellness experts say they see the “always on” mentality and longer hours creating more anxiety and a search for boundaries. Gonzalez at Albion Staffing said his wife helps him push back against a work day that easily extends into the night. “If I didn’t have a grounded spouse, I would work all the time.”

Bathurst, on the other hand, believes some people feel good about the evolving definition of a work day. “No one is forcing us to check our phones when we are watching TV and hear the ping. Many of us enjoy what we do and if we can get things done at nights or on the weekend, we’re that much further ahead on Monday.”

As I smugly pack up my laptop and shuttle my son into the car, I see other parents putting away their devices and winding down their workday, too. We head home feeling productive, ready to refocus on family life — if we can manage to resist another peek at our email.

Workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.

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