The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. What Can We Do About It?

A new book and podcast explore how we started putting work before our lives and what we can do to change it

Illustration by Yin Weihung

To be an employee in white collar America is to feel overwhelmed—by email, by workloads, by deadlines, and by the never-ending expectation to do more. It’d be one thing if we actually ended up accomplishing more at the end of the day, but since the 1990s worker productivity across the world has actually stagnated and even declined.

What if we’re working this way for no good reason? What if we are less productive, less creative, less efficient and worsening our health and wellbeing in the process? That is the premise of two new and trenchant examinations of how the way we work is no longer working: Stanford professor of organizational behavior Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It (Harper Business) and journalist Brigid Schulte’s new podcast “Better Life Lab.” The podcast is presented by Slate and the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank where Schulte is founding director of The Good Life Initiative.

“In today’s world, white-collar jobs are often as stressful and unhealthful as manual labor or blue-collar work—frequently more so,” writes Pfeffer in his book’s introduction. Yet these stresses are “seemingly invisible and accepted as an inevitable part of contemporary workplaces.”

According to Schulte: “Our culture is not aligned with living well and working well, our policies are not aligned with living and working well, and our workplace cultures are antithetical to living and working well.”

It was not supposed to be this way. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, working people and even some businesses, such as the Kellogg Factory, pushed for reduced work hours, as University of Iowa leisure studies historian Benjamin Hunnicutt recounts in his 2013 book, Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream. Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that in the future, economic growth and technology would provide enough basic material security that the workweek would fall to 15 hours. There was a belief at the time that people should have time outside of work and other obligations of life to pursue social, spiritual, and intellectual growth—what Walt Whitman called “higher progress”.

“Our workplace cultures are antithetical to living and working well.”

That idea seems to all but have vanished. Today, Americans on average work more hours than most other advanced economies and have lower quality of life in measures like vacation time, health outcomes, and retirement security. Study after study shows employees are increasingly overworked, stressed out, unfulfilled, and unengaged.

The Real Toll of Workplace Stress

Americans’ work style, while grueling, is not viewed as serious enough to preoccupy policymakers, business executives, and others.

Pfeffer thinks it should be. He argues that how we work has created a serious public health crisis. Workplace stress—from layoffs, low social support, high job demands, low fairness, low job control, and conflict between work and family commitment—are the fifth leading cause of mortality (higher than Alzheimer’s and kidney disease), causing 120,000 unnecessary deaths and $180 billion in excess healthcare costs, according to an analysis by him and his colleagues. “[P]eople are literally dying for a paycheck,” Pfeffer says.

And for all of the sacrifice, there is no evidence that organizations are more successful or profitable…People perform better when they are not under constant stress.

Employees at companies like Amazon, General Electric, IBM, Salesforce, and Uber are quoted in the book describing curve-style rankings that pit them against their colleagues; emails during the late night and early morning hours, vacation, and holidays that require constant checking in and response; and the constant pressure never to slip up in performance or make a political mistake. Those quoted describe weight gain, sleep problems, alcohol or drug addiction, and anxiety and depression.

And for all of the sacrifice, there is no evidence that organizations are more successful or profitable. As the book and other research has shown, people perform better when they are not under constant stress. There is “no real tradeoff between designing jobs to improve people’s health and designing jobs that increase motivation and performance for the benefit of employers,” Pfeffer says. Simply put, most of us function best when we are calm, well-rested, and healthy.

So why are workplaces stuck in such a counter-productive way of operating? Pfeffer believes that companies are afraid to be different from their competitors and don’t think investing the time to change management practices would lead to quick enough returns. So instead, they use “trinkets” that can be quickly rolled out—meditation classes and free food, for example—and avoid addressing the fundamental issues.

The ‘Good Life’ in a Crazed Work Culture

Part of the problem with how we work, according to Schulte, the host of the “Better Life Lab” podcast, is that we think of work as existing in a vacuum from the rest of life. Many work/life podcasts are singularly focused on work—how to wake up early, how to have productive morning routines, how to manage one’s email—without acknowledging the “messiness” of life.

“A lot of what I heard out there were productivity podcasts aimed at men who could spend all of their time working,” says Schulte, who also authored the 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time. She wanted to create something different—something that bridged the “very masculine discussions about work and how to be more productive and the very feminine discussions about how to juggle it all—the ‘mommy train wreck’ discussions.” She says keeping the conversations separate according to gender short-changes both men and women and forgets that most of us want similar things.

“This is about the search for the good life,” says Schulte. “It’s also the search for an egalitarian future where men and women can make real choices for how to combine work and life.” Her podcast gives us stories of individuals who have tried to change how they work so they can live something closer to that good life.

“What do you do while you’re waiting for these bigger forces to change? That’s the sweet spot I’m trying to hit.”

This diverse group of guests each reach a measure of well-being not through fleeting achievements like inbox zero or mastering their to-do lists but by recognizing their limits and setting boundaries that allow them to better enjoy work—and the rest of living.

In one episode, we hear from University of Arizona psychology professor David Sbarra who trained himself to be less busy after feeling his robotic commitment to “obliterating” his to-do list was causing him to miss “the moments of joy in everyday life.” He returns to a couple of basic values of spending time with his daughter and being outside more and finds himself experiencing those moments of joy.

In another episode, we meet a woman named Michelle Hickox who rose in her career as an accountant to become chief financial officer of a bank while taking summers off to be with her kids—even though she had to advocate for it, since it was not part of her workplace’s leave policy. And in another, we hear from members of Workaholics’ Anonymous, a support group for people who have acknowledged that their intense work style is damaging to them.

Schulte also interviews a variety of social science experts who offer broader context for our workplace overwhelm. Her goal is to make people aware of the “social forces” and the science of human behavior that shapes how we work. “If all you’re going to talk about is what you as an individual can do, you’re missing the bigger picture,” she says.

But she believes the individual stories are necessary, so people leave the podcast more inspired than depressed: “What do you do while you’re waiting for these bigger forces to change? That’s the sweet spot I’m trying to hit,” she says.

Schulte says she is struck by how many people have had to quit or change their work entirely to achieve a good life: “We’ve got to really look at the larger expectations we have—these ideal worker norms of always being on.”

Why It’s Hard to Leave a Toxic Work Environment

While some people successfully leave toxic work environments, many find it especially difficult, according to Pfeffer. People tend to rationalize the situation they are in to help get through it (“it’s not so bad, it’s only for awhile”), fear admitting weakness by leaving, and get influenced by people around them who seem to have accepted the conditions. He believes employees should evaluate a potential place of employment as much by its management practices as by the salary, prestige, and interestingness of the work. “Until people take responsibility for finding places where they can thrive, we can’t expect our employers to value our health either,” he writes.

“When we work in that breathless, panic stricken ‘ideal’ way – we don’t get to that deeper work that would make it more meaningful to us and contribute to our businesses and society.”

But Pfeffer thinks social and cultural change is imperative to shifting work culture: “It is management decisions that create toxic work environments, and it is management decisions that could, and in too few cases do, fix them.”

Even though overwork is not effective, it is rewarded. People who work more than 50 hours per week earn 6 to 8 percent more per hour than those who do not, according to Youngjoo Cha, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University who Schulte interviews. (This has even exacerbated the gender wage gap, because men are typically in a better place to work long hours than women, the researchers have found).

“Sometimes you choose the shorter term quick hit productivity thing that you think is going to make everybody happy,” says Schulte, but “it doesn’t get you what you’re really capable of. When we work in that breathless, panic stricken ‘ideal’ way – we don’t get to that deeper work that would make it more meaningful to us and contribute to our businesses and society.”

We need to consider how we can change our work environments so we do not, for instance, reward the person who responds to emails at 11 p.m, says Schulte.

Redesigning Our Workplaces

Society needs to create rules to help rebalance ourselves and our time “so that we don’t … tempt ourselves to misbehave”, says Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dan Ariely in an interview on “Better Life Lab”. We can look to the ancient ritual of the Sabbath as an example. When Jews observe Shabbat, they more effectively disengage from distractions like email because they know it is simply out of the question to use electronics during that period, Ariely has found.

Management could create rules to improve the workplace environment such as building more social support and job autonomy, which are critical to a healthy workplace according to Pfeffer. Job autonomy in fact frequently ranks higher than pay as a predictor of job satisfaction. Instead of expecting immediate replies to emails or messages, managers could put more asynchronous systems and policies in place. Freed from real-time expectations, employees would be able to choose when to connect to catch up on messages and when to disconnect focus on meaningful work or recharge at the end of the day.

Pfeffer believes these changes will lead a company to improved performance, but he also thinks corporate management should not be driven only by money. Civilized societies, he points out, have throughout history set “moral limits” on what is allowed in the name of profit, banning slavery and child labor. The cost of human lives to bad management practices, he argues, should be a similar moral limit. In recent decades, companies have begun to value environmental sustainability—they need to equally value human sustainability. “We should care as much about people as we do about polar bears,” Pfeffer says.

For those who want to understand how we can start caring more about ourselves—at work and in the rest of life—Dying for a Paycheck and “Better Life Lab” are a good place to start.

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