The Upside of Overtime

ARE we working too little? The idea seems far-fetched: No other industrialized country's workers put in more hours annually than the average U.S. full-time employee. But many of us won't cut back without a fight, as proved by the AFL-CIO's all-out effort this year to preserve overtime rules in the Fair Labor Standards Act. (Two bills in Congress sought to exempt private-sector workers who earn as little as $22,100 annually from federal overtime rules by reclassifying them as professional, administrative, or executive employees. A study by the Economic Policy Institute estimated 8 million workers could lose time-and-a-half OT pay from this and get comp time instead.)

Factor in longer commutes, a sluggish economy that discourages hiring, and the fact that a significant number of working Americans don't use their full allotment of vacation. What do you have? A workforce, particularly in the white-collar management ranks, that chooses to devote 50, 60, and even more hours per week to work.

Surprisingly enough, doing this is healthy. A recent study indicates male and female managers who log 61 or more hours of work per week are happier at home than those who don't. These workaholic managers said their family stress is lower; they receive on average $43,000 (for men) or $17,400 (for women) more per year in compensation and experience a higher level of job satisfaction, researchers from Northwestern University and Chicago's Loyola University reported in March 2003.

Surveying graduate students about their stress levels and use of sick days, Associate Professor John Kantor, Ph.D. of Alliant International University and co-author Kendrick W. Wong produced similar results: "Our subjects reported that working longer hours and harder might even lead to positive experiences for workers. Those who work longer hours see better opportunities for promotion than those who work fewer hours," they write.

Working longer has its downside, the researchers agree. The AFL-CIO fought to stop H.R. 1119 in the U.S. House of Representatives and S. 317 in the U.S. Senate because it feared union members would face unpredictable work schedules, as well as reduced pay. Trust, communication, and a sense of control are key issues in any worker's job satisfaction--which explains why mandatory overtime is so unpopular yet non-mandatory overtime is defended at all costs.

The Northwestern and Loyola researchers added a second caveat: Workaholic managers of both sexes may be happier, but they feel more alienation from their families. They believe they are missing important parts of their family members' lives.

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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