Atlanta poll finds 21 percent work 50-plus hours a week

As seen in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
12 Steps to Sanity Jobs: How to manage your career
by Tammy Joyner, Staff
November 14, 1999

"Mirrors on the ceiling, pink champagne on ice.
We're all just prisoners here of our own device.
Relax, said the night man, we're programmed to receive.
You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

-- Excerpt from the song "Hotel California" --

Atlantan Carey Sipp was so consumed with work at one time that each time she was in the delivery room in labor with her two children she was on the phone with clients. At the time, she was working 16-hour days, six days a week and earning a six-figure salary creating fund-raising packages for nonprofit groups.

"I still read bedtime stories to my children and I breast-fed my children and they were in the house with me," she recalled. "But my big rush was to get downstairs and come up with a headline that worked and nail a deadline." The rush almost ruined Sipp. It cost her her marriage, some clients and her health. Her life spiraled out of control. But that was five years ago.

Today, Sipp, 43, has downshifted into what she calls a much saner life and she's helping others do the same, although she says: "I'm constantly fighting the tendency to work. It's real easy for me to want to stay on the cell phone."

Sipp may be reformed, but America has become a nation of workaholics largely because of technology and, ironically, the tight labor market. E-mail, cell phones, pagers, laptop and other technological accouterments make us accessible -- thus accountable -- to our bosses and customers 24 hours a day. Workers regularly forego lunch and 5:00 P.M. departures to squeeze in more work. There is no such thing as downtime. Cross-country flight? Take a laptop to do in-flight work. Breakfast meetings with clients at 6 have become a staple.

"Workaholism has surged in our society," says Jennifer White, author of "Work Less, Make More." "We've gotten so overloaded by the information slamming at us at work. So it's very easy for someone to be consumed by their work and to spend 60, 70 hours a week at it."

The compulsion is compounded by growing on-the-job trappings offered by employers to get and keep workers. With laundry service, company-paid meals, cappuccino bars, on-site gyms, day care centers and happy hours, who needs to go home?

Work, in short, has become, one management expert says, a cult where some workers have become so wedded to work that they've pledged allegiance to their jobs by tattooing themselves with the company logo. The head of Nike and other employees proudly sport tattoos of the company's swoosh symbol on their ankle. One woman at a Portland, OR, ad agency went one better: She had the name of the agency tattooed on her legs in 3-inch-high letters.

"The old types of cults used to be company towns made famous by songs like 'I owe my soul to the company store,' "said Dave Arnott, a professor of management at Dallas Baptist University who has captured the cultlike passion for work in a new book "Corporate Cult." "People are not financially in cults now, they're emotionally in cults. There's three parts to a person's life: work, family and community, and my concern is that work seems to be taking over family and community."

If work hours are any indication, we are well on our way to being swept away.

Americans logged the longest hours among workers in industrialized countries, according to a 600-page study of workers in more than 240 countries between 1980 and 1997. The study, released in September by the International Labor Organization, found that U.S. workers put in an average of 1,966 hours at work in 1997, the most recent year studied. That is 83 hours more than in 1980. By comparison, Japanese work hours during that same period has dropped. The Japanese, once considered notorious workaholics, put in 1,889 hours in 1995, the last year for which statistics were available, compared with 2,121 hours in 1980.

And many workers, particularly those in the executive suites, are aware of the long hours they're putting in on the job. Nearly one in four executives say they consider themselves to be workaholics, according to a recent survey of 800 senior-level managers. The Exec-U-Net survey found that women were more likely than men to define themselves as workaholics, even though men worked longer hours. Half of the women making between $150,000 and $199,000 said they were workaholics.

Closer to home, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution Horizon Metro poll recently found that 21 percent of metro Atlanta workers say they work more than 50 hours a week. Men were more likely than women to log the long hours and those between the ages of 45-64 were most likely to work 50-plus hours. Working more doesn't however translate into being more productive, the ILO study found. Once considered the hallmark of productivity, Americans are losing their edge to the increasingly efficient Europeans and Japanese. American productivity growth slowed from 6.8 percent in manufacturing in the first three months of this year to a rate of 4.8 percent in September. Study after study has found that working long hours eventually wears down your health and performance.

"When there are high periods of stress and work overload being experienced or noticed in the company, there's a need for a shift in the way business is being conducted," said Paul Winum, Atlanta-based area vice president and managing director for RHR International. Work often masks other problems in our lives.

That was the case for Sipp.

"It beat the heck out of dealing with the financial and emotional side of my marriage," she recalled. "Work addiction, like food addiction and alcoholism, is about escaping reality. But, in our society, work addiction is the one addiction that's truly applauded."

The applause may be subsiding for some executives who have chosen to take their last bow in corporate America. White recalled the hard lesson one client learned from working too much. The man spent 10 years building a real estate business. Each year, he kept telling his wife "next year will be different. I just have to build my business." The day he decided to spend more time with his family, he hired someone to run the business and his wife announced she was leaving. "No matter how successful he was at work, he was missing a huge part of his life," White said. "It was a wake-up call."

Others are beginning to heed it.

One high-ranking Coca-Cola Co. executive recently announced he would be leaving at the end of the year to spend more time with his family. Coke executive Carl Ware will get about $15 million.

Pepsico president and chief executive Brenda Barnes stunned the beverage industry when she quit her $2 million-a-year job, ending a 22-year career in 1997. She said her career had taken too much of her attention away from her children.

Sipp traded a five-bedroom, three-bath home for a two-bedroom condo. She is working for a nonprofit organization and is focused chiefly on raising her children. "I have a steady job. We have our health and I'm connected to my children," she said. "I feel incredibly blessed now."

© Copyright 1999, The Atlanta Journal Constitution