Why We Work on the Weekend

Illustration by Andrew Joyner

Most of what I’ve accomplished in life—graduating from college, graduating from graduate school, paying off the debt incurred by college and graduate school, making sure I watch and return my Netflix DVDs—can be attributed to one thing: the ever-present feeling of guilt that hangs over me until I get something done.

Over the years, this fear-driven work ethic has proved very useful for my career. During the week, this I-should-do-more feeling is tempered by my regular, required work routine. But when I’m left to myself on Saturday and Sunday, I feel conflicted. Half of me wants to get started on next week’s tasks, while the other half really wants to take a nap. It doesn’t matter which one I pick, I always end up feeling as if I should be doing the other.

Dr. Gerardo Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College, says my neurosis is increasingly common. “Work is no longer confined to the office,” he says. “Now it bleeds into our time at home, our commute, even when we’re on vacation. It’s harder and harder for us to segregate our work identities from our home lives. For many people, the two have become one and the same.”

Marti has a point. According to the Department of Labor’s American Time Use Survey, while the average full-time employee’s workday has stayed consistent in recent years (at 8.4 hours), the proportion of people who work on the weekends has slowly increased to 35 percent. “With e-mail and Wi-Fi, I can stretch my work time to almost every waking moment,” says Marti. And many of us do exactly that.

“I work every weekend, usually Sunday nights,” says Bob Jones, a program manager at a distribution company in Chicago. Jones works two to three hours over the weekend, replying to e-mails and “collecting his thoughts” from the previous week. About once a month, he’ll work a full weekend day. He does this at home or a coffee shop, but he says a number of his co-workers actually go into the office. “They’re all in their 40s or above,” he says. “In their mind, if you need to do work, you come into the office. It’s an old-school kind of company, in that sense.”

Katherine, a video and photo producer at a New York advertising agency, says she works on weekends because everyone else does. When she’s not on her laptop, she’s checking e-mail on her phone. “It’s probably not that necessary, but I like to be ‘on it,’” she says. “Plus, we seem to have a culture in my office where everyone tries [to be] the last one still working.”

Americans—New Yorkers, especially—pride themselves on being hard workers, and we often run masochistic, congratulatory news articles with titles like “Americans Work More Than Anyone” to prove it. We find France’s 35-hour workweek and retirement age of 62, or Germany’s six weeks of vacation, unfathomable. But at the same time, we still hold up the 40-hour week as some sort of idealized goal, even though it wasn’t institutionalized in the U.S. until 1938 and hasn’t been consistently achieved in decades. “We often think Americans are working more, but it’s harder to know when you’re working and when you’re not working,” says Marti. “If I’m at home answering e-mails, does that count? If I were a lawyer, would that really be a billable hour?”

Mason Currey, who runs the blog Daily Routines, is an expert on people’s work schedules. He can tell you that Benjamin Franklin worked eight hours a day, every single day, while Simone de Beauvoir worked about seven. Balzac was a particularly avid workaholic; he put himself through a 15-hour workday that started at 1 a.m. “A lot of creative people have pretty regular and not glamorous working habits,” Currey says. “They set aside a large chunk of time every day, including the weekends.” But when it’s over, they have beautiful works of art that endure long after they’re gone. The rest of us have simply forgotten to eat dinner.

For people with kids, finding a healthy work-life balance can feel almost impossible. Women are still overwhelmingly the primary caregivers (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 32 percent of fathers married to working women regularly cared for their kids) but they’re working more than ever before. They do still work shorter hours than men do, but now the daily gap is only 41 minutes, with a third of them also working on weekends. When two parents work such similar hours, raising a child requires impressive displays of multitasking, compromise, and advance planning.

“I absolutely love my job,” says Pernille Ripp, a fifth-grade teacher in Madison, Wis. Ripp stays late after school, works an hour or more after her 3-year-old daughter has gone to bed at night, and comes in to school every weekend to create lesson plans and make photocopies of book chapters because the school doesn’t have enough textbooks for its students. “I do this because I want to teach above and beyond the standardized tests,” she says. “But Saturday mornings are a blast with my daughter so yes, I mind that I’m missing family time.” Ripp’s husband works just as long as she does, although his hours are more flexible so he can work around her schedule.

I don’t know whether I should find Ripp’s story inspiring (a teacher who cares!) or disheartening (a parent who’s overworked). Not that I have time to think about it. There’s too much I still have to do.