09.03.11

America's Hidden Overemployment Problem

Even as millions struggle to find work, others are suffering from never-ending work weeks that keep them from their families. Dan Mulhern on how to kill two birds with one stone.

We know too well the pain of unemployment. Almost 14 million Americans this Labor Day can’t find work. At the same time – and as hard as it may be to believe – this country is also experiencing rampant overemployment: men and women are begging for relief, as they’re working 55, 60, 65 hours a week, and are totally stressed about finding time for the families they love.

With a few creative pen strokes, corporate and government leaders could fix this paradox and help relieve the strain on millions of working families afflicted by unemployment or overemployment. How do we shift the work from those who have too much to those who have too little?

First, organizations need to wake up and see the costs of overemployment. They need to start at the top. My not-yet-50-year-old brother, president of the division of a major North American distribution company, recently stepped away because his family time was crushed and had been for years. He and his colleagues and those on the rungs below were not just stressed periodically – during hectic sales or strategy, merger, or reporting periods – but chronically, week  in and weekend out. The insistent drumbeat for “better margins” has shaped a stifling macho mentality, where executives – male and female – don’t dare ask for less work. Investor-driven demands for more margin continually cut payrolls and consequently stretch and stress the workers who remain behind.

The imaginary picture of “ideal workers” who have “little housewives” who handle the home front while he “makes a killing” is pure myth.  According to the Center for American Progress, only one-in-five families in 2009 matched the traditional profile of a full-time employee with a full-time spouse at home. A recent study by the Families and Work Institute showed that 59% of dads are stressed about meeting the needs of home and work. Women in paying jobs continue their decades-long fight to balance work and home. The macho mentality pretends it doesn’t matter, but it does.

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While almost 14 million Americans this Labor Day can't find work, this country is also experiencing rampant overemployment. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

While coaching CEOs, I never met a single one that didn’t glow brightest when talking about their children and grandchildren. I met a few who wrestled with deep anguish about the years, the children, and sometimes marriages that they had lost to overemployment. Enlightened CEOs need to open a realistic discussion at the top about being whole and healthy people, for what happens in boardrooms reverberates throughout the culture.

The imaginary picture of “ideal workers” who have “little housewives” who handle the home front while he “makes a killing” is pure myth.

Second, organizations must creatively share the cost of hiring. Any pragmatic manager who’s got 180 hours of work would prefer to have four rather than three workers to do it. But she faces the question: How do I find the money – including benefits - to hire that fourth worker?  Some savings naturally come from a productivity boost – through added skills, less fatigue, more focus, and less turnover. A slice of savings could come from the three workers’ salaries. Starting at the highest levels, we should offer workers the option of working less time for less money. When my wife was Governor of Michigan, furloughs forced this option on state workers; people got an extra Friday a month and gave salary back to improve the state’s fractured bottom line; the sacrifice was hard, but they got time in return and they kept fellow workers in jobs. A healthy business that allowed ten or twelve people to take a 10 percent furlough would free up enough money to hire a worker. The math is simple. What’s hard is changing the macho mentality that says a “serious, committed employee” doesn’t ask for a sustainable work schedule. A serious committed CEO could change that.

Finally, there is an important governmental role in this critical moment when our economic recovery is stalled - long before we’ve seen a full jobs recovery. We pay for unemployment (compensation.) What we should pay for is employment compensation. The government should allow workers to take their unemployment compensation to a new employer and offer it to that employer to defray the first months of hiring. The booster shot of federal funds could generate a longer-term boost in income for returning workers and, in turn, payroll taxes for the government.

Almost nothing stresses a family more than unemployment. But overemployment is taking a bigger toll than ever. It’s time we see the whole picture and creatively find ways to solve both problems at once.