Flexibility: The Answer To Burnout

Americans are working more hours than the Japanese these days, and nationwide burnout appears to be in the making. Not that people complain about the prosperity. It's just that, logging 2,000 hours a year on the job, they're tired, stressed out, and often a little manic. Weary middle-aged men are already bailing out of Corporate America, taking early retirement, at a record rate. Working moms increasingly are stretched to the breaking point between family and office. And even a growing number of young Net hotshots are crashing and burning under the load. This fall, as people return to the office and kids go back to school, it may be time for corporate managers to begin thinking about redesigning work. The conventional 50-, 60-, or 70-hour workweek (do you know anyone working only 40 hours?) isn't working. Creativity, productivity, and eventually profitability are sure to suffer unless companies begin to show some real flex.

Take the geezers. In 1970, 83% of men between 55 and 64 were still working. That's down to 68% and falling, despite a strengthening job market. Options, a rising stock market, and hefty pay packages are allowing an increasing number of managers to jump ship into early retirement. After decades of late nights, living on the road, and weekend work, they're bailing. And with no regrets. Corporate loyalty is low after years of downsizing (which often targeted highly paid middle-aged men who had to join the ranks of the "retired").

The real crisis is just ahead as the giant Baby Boom generation moves into its fifties, with many already rich enough to retire early. Corporations may soon find themselves in a serious crisis--an age-related brain drain. Decades of experience, knowledge, and contacts are about to walk out the door.

Moms--and dads--can't walk, but they can get so frazzled that they spend less quality time with their employer. Middle-income parents are logging 260 more hours a year at the job than they did a decade ago, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and while that's buying a better material life, it is stressing families to the max.

The answer to burnout is flexibility. This is as true for 58-year-old male senior managers as for working Minivan Moms, this year's version of Soccer Moms. What needs to be done is fairly clear. Reengineer the job to end working at the office eight, ten, or twelve hours at a time. Encourage telecommuting, which cuts endless hours of real-time commuting. Support three- and four-day workweeks. Redesign work around projects that must be completed at a specific date, allowing people to organize their own time.

A BUSINESS WEEK poll shows that nearly three quarters of American adults want the government to do more to help working families. And making the working life easier for Minivan Moms is becoming an important issue for Republicans and Democrats. Both George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore are courting them. Some 63% of women and 51% of men say they would be more likely to vote for a member of Congress who favors expanding the Family & Medical Leave Act to cover such things as regular medical exams. There is also pressure to change federal law to allow people who work extra hours to take their compensation in time off, rather than pay.

But 90% of Americans also think companies should do more now. Corporate America has got to get more flexible. It has been a long time since people called their jobs a "rat race." Increasingly, they are doing that again.

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