How hard do you want to work?

The Washington PostFebruary 26, 2014 

Forget all the athletics and personal glory in Sochi. The image that stands out in my mind from the 2014 Winter Olympics was a Cadillac commercial. The one starring the boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.

“Why do we work so hard? For stuff?” actor Neal McDonough asks rhetorically. “Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a cafe. They take the entire month of August off. … Off,” he says again for emphasis.

“Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?”

The first time the commercial aired during the opening ceremony, the slight pause after those two questions made me hopeful. I sat up to listen closely.

Was he about to say – we should be more like that? Because Americans work among the most hours of any advanced country in the world, save South Korea and Japan, where they’ve had to invent a word for dying at your desk (“Karoshi,” death from overwork). We also work among the most extreme hours, at 50 or more per week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average American works about one month more a year than in 1976.

Was he going to say that we Americans are caught up in what economist Juliet Schor calls a vicious cycle of “work-and-spend” – a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all?

Would he talk about how we Americans, alone among the advanced economies, have no national vacation policy? (So sacrosanct is time off in some countries that the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in 2012 that workers who get sick on vacation are entitled to take more time off “to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure.”)

American leisure? Don’t let the averages fool you, he could say. While it looks like leisure time has gone up, time diaries show leisure and sleep time have gone up steeply since 1985 for those with less than a high school degree. Why? They’re becoming unemployed or underemployed. Meanwhile, leisure and sleep time for the college educated, the ones working those crazy extreme hours, has fallen steeply.

Americans don’t have two “nurture days” per child until age 8, as Denmark does. No year-long paid parental leaves for mothers and fathers, as in Iceland. Nor a national three-month sabbatical policy, which Belgium has.

Instead of taking the entire month of August off, the most that employers voluntarily grant us American workers tends to be two weeks. One in four workers gets no paid vacation or holidays at all. And, in a telling annual report called the “Vacation Deprivation” study, travel company Expedia figures that Americans didn’t even use 577 million of those measly vacation days at all last year.

So as I watched the Cadillac commercial, hanging onto that rich white guy’s pause, I was hoping he’d make a pitch to bring some sanity to American workaholic culture. It wouldn’t have been a first for the auto industry. Henry Ford outraged fellow industrialists when he cut his workers’ hours to 40 a week. (Standards in some industries at the time were for 12-hour workdays, 7 days a week.) Ford did so because his internal research showed 40 hours was as far as you could push manual laborers before they got stupid and began making costly mistakes. He also wanted his workers to have the leisure time to buy and use his cars.

The rich guy takes a breath and smirks. We work so much “because we’re crazy, driven hard-working believers, that’s why.”

Bill Gates. The Wright Brothers. Were they crazy? He asks. We went to the moon and, you know what we got? Bored, he says.

“You work hard. You create your own luck. And you’ve gotta believe anything is possible.” Fair enough.

“As for all the stuff?” he says as he knowingly unplugs his luxury electric car, “that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.”

I groaned.

Cadillac spokesman David Caldwell told me to lighten up, that the ads were meant to take a playful poke at the European luxury carmakers who dominate the market. “And at least it’s gotten your attention,” he said.

Here’s what really needs attention: What working like crazy and taking no time off really gets us:

Sick – Americans spend almost twice as much on health care per person than people in other advanced nations – paying out of pocket, while other countries pool resources – and we suffer more injuries and illnesses and die younger, the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report.

Stressed – America might be the richest nation on earth, but the World Health Organization has found it is also the most anxious, with nearly one-third of all Americans likely to suffer from anxiety in their lifetimes.

Stupid – In a study of brains using functional MRI technology, scientists at Yale University have found that subjects who both lived through stressful events and felt stressed out had smaller brain volumes than less-stressed subjects in critical areas of the prefrontal cortex.

Off balance – The United States ranks near the bottom of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s work-life balance scale. And a growing number of Americans report feeling rushed, pressed, and that they don’t spend enough time with their families.

Disengaged – Gallup estimates 70 percent of all workers are disengaged from their jobs, costing $450 billion-$550 billion each year in productivity. Although American productivity looks mighty in international comparisons, slice that productivity by hours worked, and the United States falls several rungs – in some years even below those countries whose workers stroll home in the evening after a shorter, more intense workday, stop by a cafe and take the entire month of August off. Off.

So yes, America, work hard. Hoo-ah American ingenuity, gumption and drive. But remember that inspiration comes in the shower, on a walk, in a moment of rest, not when your nose is to the grindstone. It’s just the way our brains are wired.

Remember that even hardworking Bill Gates typically gives himself Think Weeks, cloistered away twice a year, owns an island off Belize, vacations in Croatia, plays bridge and tennis to relax and reads in his palatial library. The hardworking Wright Brothers invented the first flying machine only because they took a break from their busy bicycle shop, leaving Ohio to camp out in North Carolina’s Outer Banks for months in their leisure time.

And remember, rather than working so hard to have stuff, better to work to have leisure the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, upon which happiness depends.

Schulte writes about work-life issues, gender and poverty.

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