When it comes to work, a lot of us have a little problem: We don't know when to say when. Or worse still, we can't. Nearly half of American workers put in more than 50 hours a week on the job. A quarter work all year without taking a vacation.
The American work ethic has been hijacked by a culture that encourages overwork, says Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life (Perigee, 2003). We say we like to work hard and play hard, but we don't actually leave much time for play. We survive layoffs only to be saddled with multiple jobs. Then, hoping to protect those jobs, we put in late nights and long weekends and defer comp time or time off. In the process, we become, if not workaholics, then lousy employees: tired, depressed, mistake prone, resentful, and eventually burned out.
Here's the dirty little secret about American productivity: It's the highest in the world only because we all put in more hours. Workers in France and Belgium, where five or six weeks of vacation is common—and where people actually take it—are more productive per hour, Robinson's research based on International Labor Organization data shows.
What can we do about it? Start by working smarter, not longer. That's what Ernst & Young, the professional services firm, is trying to do. "People used to wear overtime on their sleeve like a badge of honor," says audit partner John Beatrice. "But we realized that was no way to live." Employees, women in particular, were leaving the firm.
Now E&Y encourages employees to create flexible schedules that accommodate both their personal and their professional lives. Some work full-time from January to March, then a reduced schedule the rest of the year. Others leave work early to pick up kids from school, then work from home later. More important, employees in the flexible work program aren't considered second-class citizens, says Maryella Gockel, the firm's flexibility strategy leader. Since the mid-1990s, 54 have been promoted to partner, director, or principle.
Such strategies, of course, are as common as khakis in corporate America. The reality is, people buy in only when they see their bosses doing the same. Which is one reason Beatrice is assistant coach for the hockey team at Randolph High School, in Randolph, New Jersey. There are days he leaves the office at 2:30 to make an afternoon game—and he expects his audit teams to pursue similar outside interests. "We think you'll do a better job, and you'll be more focused, if you have other things going on in your life."
That is, we need to put our work in context. At best, Robinson says, we should consider our relationship with work in the same terms as any other relationship. "If you don't have a perimeter, you'll get walked on," he says. As difficult as it may be, have a candid conversation with your supervisor about your schedule and ways to recharge your battery. And resist the temptation to equate long hours with commitment, even if coworkers do so.
"We need a new definition of wimp," says Robinson. "The real wimps are the people who believe you find self-esteem through productivity, who work 14-hour days. The people with real courage are the ones who set boundaries."
A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.