Time to Revolt Against Unpaid Overtime?

Working free hours makes you sick and unhappy, and it's killing the economy.

Working overtime may seem like a good idea, but over the course of a career it's the workers that pay the price. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 30, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

All work and no play doesn't just make Americans dull, it also makes us sad, poor, and unhealthy.

According to reporter Steven Greenhouse in The Big Squeeze, Americans work three more full-time weeks per year than the average British worker, six more weeks than the average French worker, and a whopping nine more weeks than the average German worker. In fact, prior to the Great Recession (which reduced working hours), the average American worker clocked in 1,804 hours of work, more than anyone else in the world.

Compounding the problem, the U.S. also lags far behind Europe when it comes to getting our much-needed rest and relaxation. In the EU, for example, every employer is required to give a minimum of four weeks vacation, with Norway and Sweden requiring five weeks and France and Spain mandating six weeks.

In contrast, there is no minimum requirement for vacation time in the U.S. "The U.S. is the only advanced nation that does not legislate a minimum number of days of vacation," writes Greenhouse. "The average in the country is 12 days of vacation per year, with 36 percent of Americans reporting that they do not use all the vacation days to which they are entitled."

The detriments of working long hours to health and happiness are well-documented. A study published last week found that British civil servants that worked 11 or more hours a day were twice as likely to be depressed compared to those who limited their work to seven or eight hours a day. So robust was the correlation that it held true even after researchers accounted for other depression risk factors, including socio-demographic factors, smoking, alcohol use, chronic physical disease, job strain and work-related social support.

With the global economy on its knees, there's more than just R&R at stake in the fight against unpaid overtime work. As Andrew Price of Fast Company points out, there are real economic effects for corporations and countries to consider. The more work employers are able to squeeze out of their staff, the fewer new employees they'll hire. According to the Trades Union Congress, a federation of U.K. labor unions, more than 5.2 million British employees worked 1,968 million unpaid overtime hours last year, the equivalent of about one million full-time jobs. Since all of that work was unpaid, the state lost out on that tax revenue, too.

A possible solution? A shorter "full-time" work week so more people can be employed. For example, a job that used to take one person 12 hours a day could be split into a couple six-hour shifts for two people. As the New Economics Foundation proposed in a 2010 paper, in the future all of us may have no choice but to subscribe to a 21-hour week. Not only would the shorter hours allow for the redistribution and democratization of paid work (as opposed to now, which is polarized towards the overworked and underemployed), it would free us up to spend time doing things that bring our lives meaning: being with family, friends, traveling, learning, and self-improving.

Then there's the fact that the 21-hour workweek may be the only way for us to continue our global expansion without taxing the planet's resources. As Michael Coren of Fast Company writes, "creating EU-level living standards for the entire world by 2050 would require a six-fold increase in the size of the global economy, with potentially devastating consequences." By then, with an estimated population of over nine billion, endlessly growing GDP won't be an option. Finding ways to refashion the workplace and make do with less, however, will.