Too much work is making us unhealthy. Why don’t we just stop it?

We’re pretty much killing ourselves by going to work in America. We work too much. We don’t take vacation days. We work from home. We work on the weekends. We don’t use sick leave, if we get it at all.


NPR tries to get to the bottom of it in a survey today that shows 43 percent of those survey say their job is creating stress in their lives. Most rate workplace wellness efforts “fair” or “poor.”

Why do we work so much? The story lists the usual reasons: Layoffs and workforce reductions just heap more work on the rest of us, or we think it’s the secret to getting ahead.

The latter excuse makes some sense. Nobody’s “performance review” goals ever said “use your vacation time.”

But maybe it’s our culture, too. Maybe we don’t know how not to give a damn, and leave the job behind? Maybe we’re too concerned about the other people we work with, the story suggests. “Not leaving the workplace short staffed,” is listed as the primary reason people don’t take sick leave.

“The takeaway here is that job No. 1 for U.S. employers is to reduce stress in the workplace,” said Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard Chan School, who directed the survey. It included interviews with 1,601 workers, by landline and cellphone. The margin of error is 2.9 percentage points.

The poll also found that only about half of working adults have workplaces that offer wellness or health-improvement programs. About 1 in 4 rate their workplace as fair or poor in providing a healthy work environment, and more than 4 in 10 rate their workplace as fair or poor in providing opportunities for physical exercise or healthful food options at work.

About 1 in 5 working adults (22 percent) say something at their job may be harmful to their health, with chemicals and contaminants topping the list at 30 percent of those who have concerns about their workplace. We found 43 percent of construction or outdoor workers and 34 percent in medical jobs have health concerns in the workplace.

Is there motivation for employers to change the game? The goal of profit-and-loss is to increase worker productivity. If there are other people to take the job of workers who flame out, why make people take the time off they’ve got coming?

The Guardian reported on a study last month that also contended U.S. law on overtime is unfairly applied and rarely enforced.

But it’s not always straightforward who is and isn’t covered under the law, say the study’s authors. Employees paid on an hourly basis are generally covered, but the rules get more complex with salaried workers. Typically, a salaried employee that earns more than $23,660 a year isn’t covered by the law. But there are different overtime rules depending on profession and job duties. The regulations also only apply to employees, and not independent contractors, problematic considering that by 2020, 40% of the US workforce will be made up of these so-called “contingent workers”.

The issue is that too often, the law goes unenforced. Hourly workers don’t always receive the overtime wages due to them, and employers often misclassify salaried employees as exempt from the law, according to a recent study from the RAND Corporation. The salary threshold that exempts workers is also too low, and is below the poverty level for a family of four, according to the report.

But the problem seems to be us and our culture that makes our workplace too much a part of our lives.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. In the early 20th century, shorter work hours were held up as the ideal, and more leisure time was viewed as a sign of success, said Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa and the author of Free Time: the Forgotten American Dream. Back then, higher paid workers were more likely to work fewer hours than lower paid workers, and as technology advanced, the thinking went, work would become less important. But the opposite turned out to be true.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly caused the current obsession with work, said Hunnicutt, but companies shoulder a lot of the blame. In certain industries, particularly tech and finance, overwork has become embedded in the culture as competition grows to remain at the cutting edge of innovation. Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google splash out on lavish amenities for their employees like free all-you-can-eat buffets and nap pods, along with doctors’ and dentists’ offices onsite, a shiny ploy to ensure employees remain at work. And it’s generally cheaper to pay an employee overtime than it is to hire more people for the job.

Enjoy your week at work.

Related: We could all use a vacation right now; firms staffing up to help (NPR)