Why do Americans work so much?

134 countries have rules mandating the maximum work week: here in the US we do not, and perhaps it is no surprise then that 85.8% of men and 66.5% of women work more than 40 hours a week. In fact, the International Labor Organization states,

Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.

The US is the only industrialized nation to lack a guaranteed parental leave option.

To say we are workaholics does not go far enough.

But it’s clear that this has negative consequences. The issues are stark in some industries, for example trucking. The US Department of Transportation recently enacted regulations requiring that truck drivers to take at least 34 hours off after working 60 hours in seven consecutive days or 70 hours in eight days. The rules also require truck drivers to take a 30 minute rest after 11 hours of driving. It’s obvious that these lengths of driving are too long, and are certainly linked to the high levels of trucks involved in crashes, which have gone up steadily over the past five years — fatalities rose 18% since 2009.

My point is not about trucking policies, which are insane, however. I am using that as just a backdrop to the more general insanity associated with number of hours of work that have come to be the norm in the US.

(Note that I am writing this on a Saturday, so I am as much a participant in the American Disease — workaholism — as the truck drivers out there suffering from white line fever.)

It’s true that those that feel good about themselves are likely to work more than those that don’t, but that should not be interpreted to mean that working longer hours makes people happy. On the contrary. There is clear evidence that allowing people to work less, and to manage when and where they work, leads to more happiness and work satisfaction.

We need to coopt a term from Danish — arbejdsglæde – which means happiness at work. And more importantly, we should adopt the thinking about work hours in Denmark, which is the happiest nation on Earth.

As Alexander Kjerulf points out,

Not only do Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, but they also get five to six weeks of vacation per year, several national holidays and up to a year of paid maternity/paternity leave. While the average American works 1,790 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,540, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics. Danes also have more leisure hours than any other OECD workers and the link between sufficient leisure and happiness is well established in the research.

Only 10% of Danish workers are actively disengaged as work, compared to 18% of Americans, and one of the key factors is overwork.

I believe that overwork is one of the dark elements of the dominant business culture in the US, today. In the American entrepreneurial culture overwork is expected. It is a sign of accepting the entire cultural milieu, one based on centralized decision-making on all ‘strategic’ issues, power relations directed through a flattened — but still strongly hierarchical — pyramid, and collective acceptance of corporate policies and procedures, which is referred to as consensus, but which is at its core a demand for unearned loyalty.

One of the pillars of entrepreneurial culture is the requirement of working long hours, to the point that the normal human relationships out of work are threatened, or minimized. The best example of this are the go-go tech companies that feed employees all their meals, so they don’t need to have dinner with friends and family, or to work out with non-work buddies, because the company health club is so much easier.

It’s not just that the company is after the increased productivity theoretically available from those extra hours: the members of the workforce are signaling their allegiance to the cultural norms, and the acceptance of the culture’s demands, even ones that are harmful. It’s an indication of total submission. This is partly what Marissa Mayer was after when she dismantled Yahoo’s telework program.

Alexander Kjerulf tells a story about an American who came to work in a Danish company, and — almost without thinking about it — began to demonstrate US-style signs of company allegiance, and it backfired there:

Wanting to prove his worth, he did what he had always done and put in 60 to 70 hours a week. After a month, his manager invited him to a meeting. He was fully expecting to be praised for his hard work, but instead he was asked “Why do you work so much? Is something wrong? Do you have a problem delegating? What can we do to fix this?”

In Danish work culture his workaholism was seen as something to be corrected, not as proof of his allegiance.

There is a change in the works: a shift away from the need for entrepreneurial notions of allegiance-through-unhappiness. Part of the entrepreneurial mindset is the concept of ‘creating culture’, as if culture is an implement to be designed, shaped, and applied. Corporate culture viewed as a means to control the behavior of the workforce.

I see a shift toward the notion of a greater-than-corporate work culture, one that is not employed by some to control the rest. Instead, it is simply a shared set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms related to work. And central to that new work culture is the desire for happiness in our work, finding meaning and purpose instead of being confronted with coercion and implicit threats.

We need to start with ourselves, to dig your own hole and sharpen your own shovel, as I put it. In this deeper culture, we have to start by putting ourselves first, and not subordinate our lives to the company:

The first principle of deep culture must be that all work is personal, and as a result, each individual must start with engagement with their own work. Only then can they apply that focus — as a marketer, customer support lead, programmer, or auto mechanic — to advance the ends of the business.

Leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners will need to step up to this new ethos of work, and stop demanding unearned loyalty and subservience from employees. That’s the model that has led us to the current status quo. It doesn’t work, and intensification will most likely only increase levels of disengagement.

And perhaps nothing is more central than the idea of work happiness. If we don’t start by expecting — demanding — a work environment based on happiness, then everything is out of whack. And the first step is to cut back on the hours at work, and spend more time daydreaming, learning new skills, walking the dog, or relaxing with friends and family.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst Gigaom Research

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