Dispatch from the Department of Human Behavior

In Today's Rat Race, the Most Overworked Win

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

For years, economists have taught their students a simple maxim: As employers hunt for workers, they want to get the best talent at the lowest price.

According to this theory, whether employees want to work long hours or short hours, employers have an incentive to accommodate them, because asking people to do something they don't want to do raises the price of labor -- workers demand more compensation.

On this Labor Day, consider a paradox: Millions of Americans say they feel overworked and stressed out. Many say they want to work fewer hours and find a better balance between responsibilities at home and work. Given that people have been saying this for quite a while, employers should have figured out by now that they can save money by being more flexible in workplace arrangements.

Decidedly, however, this has not happened. The number of people who work more than 50 hours a week has steadily grown in recent decades -- in concert with complaints about long hours.

Large surveys have found that while as many as one in six couples would like to have both partners work part time, only one in 50 couples obtains such an arrangement. Technology has made the problem worse, because people can now be tied to work around the clock through their Blackberries -- a situation jokingly dubbed "Crackberry addiction."

Nor is the situation limited to America. The pope, while on holiday recently, warned the entire world about overwork: "Watch out for the dangers of an excessive activity, whatever . . . the job that you hold, because many jobs often lead to the hardening of the heart, as well as suffering of the spirit, loss of intelligence," the Associated Press reported.

If employees are unhappy and overworked, and employers are having to pay more for unhappy employees, why does the situation persist in a rational economic marketplace?

Some economists, sociologists and psychologists say the paradox arises because of the changing nature of the workplace. In a growing number of professions, especially those that involve thinking and social skills, managers and owners find it difficult to measure the day-to-day performance of employees.

When employees make tangible products, it is easy to measure performance based on the quality of the products. But when work is intangible and involves aesthetics, judgment or social networking, employers do not have easy ways of measuring how important such activity is to the bottom line, Cornell sociologist Marin E. Clarkberg said.

"When you have an undefinable product, there is a temptation to measure output in terms of hours," she said. "In law and a lot of amorphous professions, when you are trying to win a case or being a professor, you are doing things like thinking. It's not like little widgets you produce which you can count."

For partners at big law firms, the simplest way to track the performance of junior lawyers is to see who bills the most hours above and beyond what is officially required, leading to what Case Western Reserve University economist James B. Rebitzer calls an "arms race" of hours.

When it comes to getting promoted at law firms, associates who work long hours are far more likely to make partner -- even if they are no more talented than others, said Renee M. Landers, who teaches law at Suffolk University in Boston and has studied the world of big law firms, where she once worked. In turn, these new partners will evaluate their juniors according to the same criteria, setting up a spiral to see who can work the longest hours.

The focus on hours sets up a rat race at many companies, where most people want to work shorter hours, but no one is willing to step forward to ask for them, because the first person to make such a move will be branded as insufficiently committed to his or her job. (This is the case with any arms race: It is unproductive because you have to run just to stay in place. Everyone would benefit if the race is called off, but no one can afford to be the first to slow down.)

"It's your classic dilemma," Landers said. "Everyone knows what the answer is, but no one wants to be the guinea pig."

Clarkberg, Landers and Rebitzer said employees (and their families and communities) are not the only ones to suffer. Customers and the economy as a whole also pay a price, Rebitzer said. The hour that the overworked and sleep-deprived lawyer bills for work done at 4 a.m. costs the client the same as an hour's work after a good night's sleep, even though the quality of the lawyer's work is better at 9 a.m.

Employers pay a price, too, not just in higher wages, but in lost talent -- the race systematically filters out talented people whose only flaw is that they do not want to work long hours.

Women may be especially disadvantaged at this game: While equal numbers of men and women now graduate from law schools and enter big firms, the proportion of women who make partner remains stuck at around 17 percent, perhaps because many talented women are not willing to enter the working-hours arms race, Landers said.

"The rules for work were defined around married men in the first place," Clarkberg said. "These were breadwinner-homemaker families. We have not done anything to transform the nature of work around the current realities."

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