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All out of time

Nick Walker finds out whether overwork is unproductive and can actually be fatal

When I was a secondary-school student in the 1980s, the future seemed so peachy. The conventional wisdom was that my generation would be the first to work less than 40 hours a week. Indeed, we’d be only doing half, if that. In the 21st century, computers would do all our work for us, freeing us up for all the leisure time denied to our parents and grandparents. However, it turns out computers became our masters; we became slaves to the machines. For a variety of reasons, we are working longer hours than ever.

In Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, author Brigid Schulte cites statistics that reveal Americans in the prime of their lives now work about a month more a year, as tabulated by hours, than their parents did at the same age.

I want to hug Schulte – an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post – for highlighting the most pernicious disorder of our era. Overwhelmed is a fastidiously researched, yet jargon-free, study of how top-down policies and societal pressures have shredded our leisure time into useless fragments, in turn dehumanising us and damaging the health of countless millions.

Schulte cites research that finds work-related stress can raise the risk of clinical depression, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s, and also actually shrinks the areas of the brain that govern decision-making, emotions and moods.

She calls our contemporary unstoppable business “the overwhelm” and addresses this disease of our times with flair. Throughout the tome – part pop-psychology book, part self-help guide – she’s on the side of the “scattered, fragmented, exhausted” souls who chose not to be workaholics, and seek a more satisfying work-life balance.

The author talks to sociologists and scientists around the globe to illustrate how serious and widespread the situation is. One shocking finding is that the average high school student today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s. She also cites surveys of workers with families in which 90 per cent report moderate to high levels of “role overload”, or trying to do too many things at once.

The depressing picture crosses socioeconomic boundaries. While poorer parents are overwhelmed trying to cobble together several part-time jobs to make the rent, affluent families are working insane hours, with a knock-on effect on their children’s mental health.

Schulte is particularly concerned with the effects on women, who often get an unfair deal in the contemporary workplace. She observes that the most leisure-time-starved group in society are mothers, particularly single parents.

Identifying the problem is the first step in combating it, and Schulte names three sources that spawn the “overwhelm”: our jobs, expectations and ourselves. It is jobs, of course, that we have the least control over.

One of the most shocking sentences in the book is the following: “The US is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers paid time off,” with Schulte noting that “nearly one-quarter of all American workers get no paid vacation”. Although this is an America-centric observation, questions have to be asked about any society in which children don’t see enough of their parents because they’re always working. This is certainly not something prevalent in Scandinavia, however, a region that gets high marks from Schulte for its government-mandated, family-friendly policies. Denmark particularly impresses her, with its quality childcare centres and its workdays that end promptly at 4:30pm.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that the Nordic countries always top surveys on what are the world’s happiest places. A sound work-life balance – guaranteed by the state – surely has something to do with that. It certainly can’t be the weather.

One of the most thought-provoking parts of Overwhelmed is the section on “presenteeism”. Schulte chides employers for believing the fallacy that there is a direct correlation between time spent at one’s desk and productivity. Voluminous research has proved that most people can only do eight to nine hours of quality work a day. After those productive hours, the company is paying the worker for “recreational browsing”, or fantasising about the relationship between the boss and a medieval torture device.

It’s not all the fault of our stone-hearted employers though. The relatively well-off have to take some responsibility for venerating overwork and what Schulte calls the non-virtue of “busier than thou”. Middle-class professionals use it as a badge of pride and status, in the same way that having a tan used to be a badge declaring one rich enough to afford holidays on sun-kissed foreign beaches.

So, what is the answer? Schulte makes it simple. It’s up to you to decide if you want – or sufficiently value – “busier than thou” bragging rights. There’s only 24 hours in a day, 16 if you include enough sleep – and sufficient sleep is a major prerequisite of sound physical and mental health. Prioritise what is important to you.

Schulte inspires us to appreciate the important things in life, and she doesn’t say a monthly pay cheque isn’t one of them. A crucial message here, and one especially close to home for Hongkongers, is that pure free time – uninterrupted, soul-restoring intervals of meaningful duration, when one can totally relax and enjoy life – is much more precious than most realise.

Another crucial message is that one of our favourite buzzwords, “multitasking”, is grossly overvalued. One of the studies she cites has found that every one-minute digital interruption – a tweet, an SMS message, an e-mail – requires 10 to 20 minutes to return our focus to the task at hand. Our brains are not hard-wired to multitask. But they are highly amenable to awe at life’s myriad wonders, or play with children, or shoot the breeze with cherished friends (not office “frenemies”), provided we have the time.

Schulte has delivered a life-affirming and wonderful book that, unfortunately, probably won’t be read by the very people who most need to heed its wisdom.



Claudine Hassan, a bank employee in Paris, gives some tips on maintaining a sound work-life balance.

Switch off  “I have a smartphone that is purely dedicated to work – it’s the one that my boss or colleagues can call me on, and I turn it off at 8pm every night. After this, I don’t think about work until I step onto the train the following morning.”
Dine out  “I eat a packed lunch, but always on a park bench, never at my desk. I love seeing trees in the middle of the day.”
Clear the mind  “I use the last 20 minutes of my break for prayer and meditation. This recharges me and reconnects me to a cosmos far bigger than my office.”