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Do you send late-night emails when you don’t need to? Then you’re part of the overwork problem.

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In the 1970s, if someone put in more than their standard hours, they lost out – they wound up donating their time to their company for free. That began to change in the 1980s, as more companies began to, first reward workers financially for working long hours, then, in the 1990s, began expecting them to. Especially in white collar professions. Lawyers, for example, were expected to bill about 1500 hours a year in the 1970s, about 1900 hours in the 1990s, and now more than 2000 hours, surveys have found. Youngjoo Cha, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies overwork, argues that overwork contributes to inequality in professions and pay between men and women, and needs to be changed by the very employers who benefit the most from it. She explains:

Q: Why are so many more people overworking today?

Cha: The overwork phenomenon is increasingly the norm in the workplace. In all these prestigious occupations, the expectations are that people should work long hours, especially if they want to be seen as serious and committed workers.

Some people say they love to work, that they have a professional identity as a workaholic. That’s partly true. But the reason they enjoy it, is because they’re rewarded for it. My research shows that people may enjoy overwork, but it comes from the positive reinforcement they get in the workplace.

In our research, we define overworkers as those who work at least 50 hours per week. What we’ve seen is that over the past 30 years or so, those people who work long hours are increasingly paid better per hour than those who work 35 hours or more, but less than 50 hours.

Salaried workers don’t get paid by the hour. If you just work really long hours, and divide earnings by hours, they tend to have lower per hour earnings, compared to hourly workers. But even with salaried workers, we see a striking take off in overwork hours over 30 years, and workplaces giving an overwork premium for working long hours.

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I study the consequences when it comes to gender inequality.

Overwork appears to be gender neutral at first glance, because it would seem that anyone who can work long hours can benefit from this overwork premium.

But on closer look, the ones who are able to work those long hours tend to be men.

Those who have caregiving responsibilities, predominantly mothers, are not. So, as overwork hours have increased, and been more rewarded, that’s benefitted more men than women, which has contributed to the gender wage gap over time.

Our data shows a little over 20 percent of men across the labor market are overworkers. For women, it’s a little under 10 percent.

Q: When did the overwork phenomenon begin to take off?

Cha: Our data looks at 1979 to 2013. This rise of wage returns to overwork has actually happened at a constantly increasing pace. The workplace has been paying better for overworkers over time.

But when you look at the proportion of overworkers, that increased a lot when we were going through the 1980s and 1990s. That’s when it took off pretty quickly. In the early 2000s going through the recession, work hours, essentially among men, decreased a little. But after the recession, we see that work hours increased again.

Overwork, it’s important to note, is not the same across all workers, it varies tremendously by occupation. And it fluctuates. It went down in the late 2000s after the recession, but it looks like it’s going up again. This is really a phenomenon particular to professional managers. We find that among managers, about 40 percent of men overwork, compared to 27 percent in the 1970s. For women, the share overworking has gone from 10 percent to a little more than 15 percent.

Q: Why did we start to reward overwork?

Cha: That’s really the question. It’s an ongoing research topic.

It’s driven by macroeconomic changes, and driven by the labor market. People start to put in long hours because they feel insecure about their job. Increasing insecurity, and downsizing exacerbates the insecurity. People feel extra pressure to prove that they’re loyal to their employers.

Employers have a lot of incentives to have their employees overwork. It’s sort of a labor utilization strategy. Employers tend to squeeze their employees. Instead of hiring large numbers of people, as in the past, now employers hire fewer people, especially among highly skilled workers where this overwork phenomenon is most pronounced. And they tend to reward overwork as a way to increase productivity per hour.

When you think how work is compensated over time, it’s a winner take all market. You win or lose. You’re up or down in the promotion system. Whether you become a partner, or get a tenured job, can mean huge pay differences.

The ‘tournament models’ of compensation – the ‘up or out’ system – also became popular in 70s, 80s, 90s. That also increases tension and the incentive to overwork.

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Q: How much is overwork a personal choice?

Cha: We hear a lot of people who say, ‘This is my professional identity.’ Or, ‘I love my work.’ People do enjoy work because it’s compensated. So it’s hard to disentangle – is it an individual choice, or an individual choice shaped by these pay off models?

People do enjoy work, but if it’s not appreciated by employers, and not properly compensated, I don’t know how many people would actually put in this many hours in the workplace. And there are social expectations as well, particularly for men in professional workplaces.

Q: How do the social expectations for women factor into overwork?

Because women are still providing the majority of caregiving, they tend not to be well represented in fields that require long hours. So the overwork norm reinforces occupational sex segregation. For women, there’s an increased attrition rate for women in professions that tend to have the longest hours, like science, technology, engineering and math.

One thing that increases the exit rate of women in any field is work hour norms, that’s what some of my work shows. I’ve found that in places where overwork is the norm, fewer people take advantage of leave policies or flexible work policies.

Controlling for other factors, it appears that, for the occupations where the proportion of overworkers is 10 percent, the usage rate of paid leave is about 12 percent. When the proportion of overworkers is 40 percent, the usage rate goes down to 7 or 8 percent. If 60 percent are overworkers, like with physicians, it’s even lower, about 6 or 7 percent. It’s a pretty big effect.

It’s ironic. The professions that have more overwork, also tend to have better paid leave. Yet they don’t take advantage of it because of the overwork norms.

In my recent research, I’ve found that the flip side of overwork, when workers are deviating from this overwork norm, they tend to be penalized. That makes it difficult to talk about other ways of getting work done.

Q: So what can readers do about it? How do you change that overwork culture? Or survive in one?

Cha: That’s a hard question.

First, I think that people should normalize the workplace for a modern workforce. We no longer live in the 1950s.

In the contemporary workforce, the majority of families are two earner-families and single parent-headed families. So, not many families fit into that 1950s concept that one person goes to work and one person stays at home to take care of the children. The overwork norm rests on that assumption, that you can focus on work, because there’s someone else backing you up at home.

But that’s not the assumption we can make about workers anymore. A lot of men now, too, want to be part of the family, and taking care of children these days.

Employers and our national policies need to recognize that.

It has to be top down, in some ways. This overwork norm is really prevalent in good occupations. Those in positions of authority tend to be the most resistant to changing the way work is done, yet they are the ones with the power to change the overwork norm.

It doesn’t make sense. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, yet our paid leave policies are so bad that we’re behind all other advanced countries. National policies can also set the norm about what we expect from workers.

And the more that workers don’t have to demonstrate their loyalty by their hours, but by the actual work they get done, the more we’ll start to see a change in rewarding overwork.

But if you are in a supervisor position, there are a lot of things you could do to create work norms for your unit or your department:

Sending email asking for work in non-staff hours is very bad. People don’t think about it much when they’re in a power position – you want to send an email, so you don’t have to think about it anymore. But when a manager sends something after midnight, the person who’s receiving the email in lower power position feels they have to respond right away.

I’m a big fan of implementing changes as policy, because that sets the norm.

Q: What about you? Do you overwork?

Cha: (Sighs) I’m part of the game, right? I’m in a profession where overwork is so prevalent. You have to keep up with the norm. Some people might think I’m a hypocrite, because I talk about the consequences of overwork, and yet I work long hours.

But we can’t ask individual workers not to work long hours. With the current overwork norms, that could endanger their careers, right?

So the change has to come from above.

I do work long hours. But I’m hoping that things will change, and I’m trying to create a new norm with my graduate students: I don’t expect them to be available 24/7. I try to not send them emails at odd hours. I try to set the norm that they shouldn’t be at work all hours.

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