Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Time to rethink work/life balance

August 2, 2014

For most American workers, there’s no such thing as 8-to-5 anymore.

Nights. Weekends. Holidays. We’re always on—thanks in no small part to our smartphones.

The constant connectivity is getting so intense that some are taking radical steps when planning vacations or getaways, to allow for digital detox. (See story, page 1.)

We all could use a rest—for our health and sanity, for starters. But putting down our phones on occasion also can improve our performance at work. Productivity and creativity suffer when we’re always on call. The big picture comes into clearer focus without the constant ding of new emails.

The work overload has become so chronic that some surprising advocates are pushing for more than an occasional reset while on vacation; they’re calling for an overhaul of how we define a work week.

The Mexican billionaire and world’s second-richest man, Carlos Slim, admittedly an unlikely advocate for the overworked, sparked a viral debate recently when he called for a universal three-day work week.

Slim suggested workers put in 11 hours per work day and retire much later in life. Worker advocates pounced, noting the billionaire’s self interest in squeezing more productivity out of his employees and the fact that such a change—if it isn’t accompanied by a living wage—would simply require more people to get a second or third job.

Perhaps a four-day work week is more realistic. It’s working for some technology companies—among them Digital Relevance, the 50-employee local company formerly known as Slingshot SEO. The staff works 10-hour days, which pays off smartly with three-day weekends.

The online magazine Salon reports that, in a poll, 70 percent of millionaires liked the idea of a four-day work week for themselves. It wasn’t clear whether they also liked the idea for their employees.

Workers today are more productive than ever, a feat futurists once thought would lead to fewer hours at work and more time for leisure. In a column on the topic of a shorter work week, the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell noted George Jetson—star of the cartoon set in 2062—complained to his wife, Jane, about his unbearable three-hour workdays.

The futurists got other stuff wrong, too, including the prediction that higher worker productivity would lead to proportionately higher wages.

One argument for a shorter work week is that many already are working the equivalent of four days—what with all the personal calls, web surfing and emails on company time. Work has a tendency to fill the time allotted for it.

Even with a shorter work week, there’s no guarantee work wouldn’t continue to invade life hours.

Ultimately, employees and bosses have to take control of our own work/life balance. Leave your phone behind once in a while. Managers, try a little experiment—ask your IT staff to shut down the email server for a few hours. See what happens when your people have to pick up the phone or talk in person.•

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