Push For ‘Firm 40’ Workweek Faces Challenges Across The United States

By Diane Stafford
The Kansas City Star.


Many American workers don’t really leave work. Emails, phone texts, pager alerts and phone calls pepper what once was personal time.

And that’s not including on-call shifts or beeper time, which require workers to be ready and able to work at a moment’s notice.

When is it time to call it quits?

A handful of company owners and executives around the country are beginning to put limits on work encroachment on personal time. They’re imposing “quittin’ time” policies, asking their employees to give a “firm 40” hours a week and no more.

At United Shore Financial Services in Troy, Mich., employees are told to give the company everything they can for eight hours a day, and then go home to a personal life.

“It’s important that everyone here recognize that their job is part of their life, it isn’t their entire life,” said Laura Lawson, chief people officer at United Shore.

Lawson said the family-owned company wants “our team members to be focused and work hard for 40 hours a week while they’re at the office, and enjoy the rest of their time with their families.”

It’s a tacit bargain, she said: When the company considers its workers’ work-life balance, its workers reciprocate by “wanting to work harder while they’re here.”

According to the 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study by Workplace Trends and CareerArc, two-thirds of professionals surveyed said their managers expected them to be reachable outside the office. Equally, two-thirds of human resource officials said they expected employees to be reachable on their personal time.

This constant connectivity has seeped throughout professional ranks, blurring the line between work and home.

For many salaried employees who don’t receive overtime, “Employers around here mostly are saying, ‘Do your work. We’re not watching the clock,'” said Landa Williams, president of LandaJob Marketing and Creative Talent in Kansas City. “That may take more than eight hours, but we’re not watching the clock.”

Outside of organized labor contracts, that’s pretty much the American workplace norm.

“With our devices, we’re all so connected now,” said Kim Bartak, an engineer in Kansas City. “The first thing I do in the morning is check my email on my phone, and it’s the last thing I do before bed. It’s something I put on myself. I don’t want to be missing something.”

Bartak points out that sometimes she’s able to take care of a bit of business at night so that she feels like she has a head start in the morning. For her, constant connectivity isn’t necessarily a stressor, partly because she’s in control of her time.

For others who lack off-hours control, it’s more intrusive. One worker, who asked to be nameless for career-protection reasons, said she left a career in the utility industry for a job with a better work-life balance.

“Due to the nature of our customer service job, many of us had to be available 24/7, and I certainly understand the need,” the worker said. “But it was frustrating because the general infringement on personal time wasn’t predictable. Power outages aren’t planned. Our plans had to change with little notice, and that made it harder to deal with.”

Putting a limit on work time isn’t just about being nice. Repeated studies find that putting in a lot more hours on the job doesn’t help productivity rise. Worse, longer hours lead to increased rates of work errors, injuries and stress-related health problems. And it certainly doesn’t help people maintain a semblance of work-life balance.

The creeping extension of the workday, and even the workweek, has hit blue collar and white collar, hourly and salaried workers alike. Mandatory 10-hour or 12-hour shifts or six-day weeks have become common in some industries. In fact, no U.S. law limits the total work time that employers can ask of workers.

While federal law does require time-and-a-half overtime pay for workers who are paid by the hour, compensation for most salaried workers doesn’t change based on hours spent on the job. The rationale is that the salary pays to accomplish the required duties, no matter how long they take.

Connie Swartz, a small-business founder who has been active in Kansas City entrepreneurial groups for three decades, founded her company with a policy of not taking on clients who demanded round-the-clock or last-minute rush orders. She believed it wasn’t good, in the short or long term, for her workers or her company.

But, while she said she agreed with limiting work hours, she saw the challenge in defining those limits.

“It’s hard to quantify work hours in so many professional jobs,” Swartz said. “People take long lunches. They have flexibility to do the work wherever and whenever. It’s hard to say what hours are work hours.”

Indeed, some studies indicate that many people work less than they think they do. People fail to take into account break time, conversations with co-workers, personal phone calls, time on the Internet and other interruptions from task.

That’s one difference pointed out internationally. In Germany, for example, it’s said that corporate culture causes workers to police each other’s work time, no checking Facebook and limited personal chitchat on the job, creating a “work hard, play hard” vibe.

But, it’s also noted that workers in Germany have about five times the number of paid vacation days annually than U.S. workers, and laws for some Germans limit their time on the job. Most workers in the United States have about six paid vacation days a year and, unless specified in a collective bargaining agreement, have no laws limiting workdays or workweeks.

Even in collective bargaining, though, the AFL-CIO says that “work-family issues are sometimes the most likely to fall off the bargaining table quickly.” The labor organization urges unions to continue to press for lifestyle benefits in contract talks.

Largely, the American workplace is becoming less and less about structured hours. And some employers and employees alike see work-hour rules as unnecessary for people who are passionate about what they do. But many workers don’t fall in the “I love my job so much that it’s not like work” camp.

Indeed, many business owners and executives bewail a perceived loss of an American work ethic. The most common complaint among human resource officers is the difficulty of hiring “good people.” They won’t go on the record with their company names attached, but some say they don’t get a “firm 40” out of their people now.

As with any issue, it’s impossible to put all workers in one category. Some give extra effort; some don’t meet minimum standards. But most will agree that job cuts in the last recession and its aftermath made many workers less likely to complain to the boss.

Good workers who held onto their jobs pushed themselves to work longer, harder, to make themselves less likely to be layoff fodder. Others were forced to work longer because former colleagues weren’t around to share the load.

Whatever the reason for the no-clear-end workday, experts say it isn’t good for employers, either. John Pencavel, a Stanford University economics professor, is getting attention for his research into the negative effects of longer hours on productivity.

Some of his work was based on an old manufacturing environment, but his detailed studies indicated that “profit-maximizing” employers shouldn’t “be indifferent to the length of (employees’) working hours over a day or week.”

In other words, he concluded, demanding more hours won’t guarantee more output or more profit. At a certain point, workers simply aren’t as productive, no matter what they do.

The Mayo Clinic suggests ways to get the most out of your work and home time:

-Decide what is necessary, do that and let the rest go.

-Keep calendars and to-do lists for work and home so there aren’t last-minute worries.

-Don’t take on tasks out of guilt or false obligation.

-Consciously separate work from home time. Set a time to leave, and go.

-Limit the number of times daily you check email.

-See if flextime, compressed workweeks, job sharing, telecommuting or other flexible scheduling options are available; controlling your own hours helps reduce stress.

-Minimize work interruptions to your best ability to reduce the time it takes to return to task.

-Don’t try to concentrate for more than 90 minutes at a time. Take a break to be more effective.

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