Overwhelmed at Work and Home: A Q&A with Brigid Schulte

How to address the U.S. epidemic of stress.

By Dec 1, 2014
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1214-Cover.jpgWashington Post
reporter Brigid Schulte got the inspiration for her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), when she was trying to dig out from her own overscheduled life. She soon discovered that everyone felt overwhelmed—not just working mothers or people with high-powered jobs. HR Magazine talked to her about the constant pressures Americans are facing and how we can reclaim our time.

Why do we all feel so busy?

In the U.S., white-collar workers work 50 hours or more each week—among the most of any advanced economy. That doesn’t include the hours people spend hanging around the office so their boss can see or when they are checking e-mail or social media.

In addition, American workers don’t take as much vacation as those in other countries. The U.S. is the only major economy with no law requiring paid vacation. One-quarter of American workers are at companies that don’t offer vacation. The companies that do offer vacation provide 10 to 14 days a year on average, but Americans don’t use it all or they take work along. As a result, we’re in a constant jet-lagged state. Our work never feels like it’s done.

You’ve written that U.S. workplace policies are stuck in the mid-1950s. What do you mean by that?

Half the U.S. workforce is women, including many working mothers. Yet women still have the primary responsibility at home. Our policies reflect cultural attitudes that we think that’s where they belong.

The U.S. has only one family-friendly federal law—the Family and Medical Leave Act. You can get 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year, after the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a sick family member, for instance. But most people who could take it don’t because they can’t afford it.

Some companies do have reasonable and even generous paid time off or parental leave. But culture is even more critical than policies. Organizations’ leaders need to model sane work habits and take breaks. After vacation, everyone comes back more productive and happier. And companies that measure performance, rather than counting long hours of face time, say they see benefits.

Who does corporate America view as the ideal worker?

Surveys of managers and CEOs, and compensation studies, show that our workplaces reward employees who come in early, eat lunch at their desk, stay late and have no life outside the office. The irony is that surveys also indicate that American workers are burned out, disengaged and getting sick from so much work. And many of us are caught up in trying to meet this impossible ideal, and it’s not doing any of us—companies included—any good.

What can HR do to help workers feel less overwhelmed?

Conduct regular surveys. What’s stressing your employees? A lot of ideas never bubble up because of silos and hierarchies. Some fixes are quite simple—flexibility, looking at work hours, creating a culture that rewards efficiency. Others have to do with helping workers handle stress. But if companies are not dealing with the source of the stress—workplace culture, rigid work hours or the expectation of long hours in the office—they’re missing the point.

Flexibility is not just for working mothers. If you have a “women’s initiative,” blow it up. Men telecommute the most. Millennials want to do it, but so do Baby Boomers. Make it a companywide culture change.

Do you feel less overwhelmed now?

I do. I try to work in pulses—90-minute periods of focused work without the distractions of e-mail or telephone—and to be very mindful about what my priorities are, so I’m not sucked into answering e-mails all day. I’m much clearer about what my mission is and much more productive.

Joan Mooney is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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