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Posted: February 01, 2014

Rundles wrapup: Long hours may be hazardous to your health

And your happiness

Jeff Rundles

Over Thanksgiving, I was talking with a young couple I know, pretty much fresh out of college and a little more than a year into the working world. The odd thing that came forth in the conversation was how much harder their chosen-career jobs were than they expected. A lot of hours, very demanding, little time off; they didn’t say it overtly, but it was clear that the jobs themselves were getting in the way of their lives.

It struck me that this could be a good commentary on higher education not preparing people for the real world. I think back to my own time in my 20s, when my friends and I were just beginning our careers. The hours were very long (just ask any new lawyer associate or intern physician, for instance), and when you spend that much time each and almost every day at work, it’s hard to have “a life.” On the other hand, I know that those first few years as a working journalist – heck, the first few weeks – were jammed with more learning, more knowledge and more pertinent experiences than anything I faced in college. Indeed, I wrote more the first week on a real newspaper than in whole semesters in school, and the demands of my first editor made even my challenging college professors look like pushovers.

It’s like a rite of passage: When you’re just starting out, working long hours and feeling consumed by the learning curve is part of the traditional and necessary process. The presumption is that as you age and gain more experience you can supplant some of the toil with expertise. That you will, as they say, gain wisdom that is supposed to be more valuable than mere hours.

Funny how things like recessions, and especially a Great Recession, can change that. According to work-force studies, many workers, both young and old, have reported significant upticks in their workloads in recent years, over a quarter of them saying their workloads have doubled. That, says best-selling author Tasha Eurich, is not a good thing. In a recent press release she sent out, the industrial-organizational psychologist and executive coach says working too much makes us more stupid and depressed, hurts career advancement, and may actually lead to premature death. Talk about having “no life!”

Another study I came across recently says that American workers are not taking advantage of the total vacation days they earn, enjoying just 10 annual vacation days out of 14 available, leaving a collective 500 million vacation days unused each year. A big reason for electing to stay on the job, some say, is fear: the fear of losing importance, and/or of being judged by co-workers and bosses as not fully committed. No wonder they are depressed. 

I know personally how this works, as I have worked for a few concerns, and a few bosses, who made it clear, tacitly, that vacations or the occasional day off (for you, not them) were questionable activities. They even made checking in during breaks an annoying requirement.

When you’re young and basically stupid, working long hours and taking few breaks is normal. Now it seems as though companies want to force this level of stupidity onto even experienced workers in the name of “productivity.”

I hear tell of some productive high-tech companies that have unlimited vacation policies – “two weeks to infinity” – and even one, a software company called Evernote, that encourages workers to take an entire week off by paying a $1,000 bonus to anyone who does. Something tells me that if I worked there, I wouldn’t be stupid, depressed or life-threatened. How refreshing. 

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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