America's "free time" problem: Why nearly half of U.S. workers don't get enough of it

New data shows the horrifying reality: We're working way harder than ever with no time for leisure. Here's why

Published February 4, 2015 3:56PM (EST)

  (AP/Darron Cummings)
(AP/Darron Cummings)

Your alarm clock rings. Before even hitting snooze, you check your work email to make sure you're not missing anything urgent. You check before your shower, after your shower, and you check it at red lights during your commute. You do the same on your way home. You check your email again after dinner, and then once more before bed. As you fall asleep, you realize you never had time to settle in and actually enjoy life since your phone was always an arm's length away just in case you had to take care of that important email.

This reality is too familiar to an increasing percentage of Americans, according to a recent study from – an HR-focused research firm – and CareerArc, an HR technology company.

The study polled just over 1,000 working professionals and found that 65% are expected to be available outside of work both by email and by phone. As a result, 45% of workers feel they don't have enough free time; their job is colonizing their entire day, not just 9 through 5.

“The reality that everyone faces is that technology has blurred the workday and that's never going to change,” Dan Schawbel, founder of WorkplaceTrends, told Salon.

Over the past few years, the cubicle has camouflaged itself as our living rooms, kitchens, and even our bedrooms. A 2012 study concluded smartphones and tablets add two hours onto the workday, though a Gallup report from late 2014 wasn't as harsh. The Gallup report showed the average American works a 47-hour workweek as opposed to the standard 40 hours – the equivalent of working an extra day. In December, The Economist reported that 60% of workers who use smartphones are connected to their jobs for over 13 hours a day. The deluge of work affects women – specifically mothers – more than men. American mothers only have an estimated 36 minutes of free time.

Employers haven't tacked on an increase in pay along with the increase in hours; worker productivity increased 400% since 1950, but wages have remained virtually unchanged. Meanwhile, the average income of the top 1% surged over 240% since then.

The new American workday's only rewards come in the form of psychological malaise and physical maladies. Working long hours doubles the risk of depressioncauses binge drinking, and sitting at a desk all day literally kills you.

Seeing the circumstances Americans are exposed to, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the United States 29th out of 34 countries in work-life balance.

In case numbers and statistics confuse you, here's the problem in plain English: Americans are working more hours, doing more work during those hours, and not seeing any more cash for their efforts.

How did it come to this?

“Companies, of course, want to maximize the amount of time each employees spends doing work because they more work they do, the more profitable they are potentially,” said Schawbel. “It's in the companies' best interest to have employees work longer hours for the same pay and workers are competing for promotions and salary increases so they are at a disadvantage if they put less time in. People almost feel like they have to work longer hours in order to build a stronger career at the cost of their personal lives.”

Emphasis added on the final sentence. In America, you need to sacrifice your soul – not so you can make more money – but so you can slightly decrease your odds of getting a pink slip.

Though it's possible the nightmare of a 13.5-hour workday for each and every American end before it becomes more common.

“The solution is for managers and employees to agree on a specific time, based on the role, that they can stop answering emails or phone calls. For instance, they could agree that after 6 PM, the business phone gets turned off, leaving only the personal phone on,” said Schawbel.

Workplace flexibility programs, too, could help workers. The Washington Post reported an increase in worker happiness when employers adopted such programs, but this solution doesn't address the overall increase in hours.

Perhaps the work-life balance is dead. Perhaps work is simply life in modern America.


Matt Saccaro is Salon's social media editor. Follow him @mattsaccaro.

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