Who Pays?

The news about unemployment is dismal – and getting worse.  Today the official unemployment rate in the U.S. has inched up another tenth of a percent.  But there is even worse news, embedded in the seemingly positive figures about productivity in the workplace.

Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than the British, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.  They are working harder and accomplishing more.  How is this possible?

As employees are fired, their work is reassigned to others.  As businesses are merged, roles are combined.  As managers are seeking to cut costs, they give existing employees more responsibility.

A report in Mother Jones quotes Erica Groshen ,  V-P at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York:  “It’s easier here than in, say, the UK or Germany for employers to avoid adding permanent jobs. They’re less constrained by traditional human-resources practices or union contracts.”  That is, they are more willing to exploit their workers.  Rutger’s political scientist Carl Van Horn explained: “Everything is tilted in favor of the employers…. The employee has no leverage. If your boss says, ‘I want you to come in the next two Saturdays,’ what are you going to say—no?” (See, “Overworked America:  The Great Speed Up.”)

The result is what The Wall Street Journal calls “superjobs,” jobs that are expanded to include more tasks and responsibilities:  “businesses of all sizes have asked employees to take on extra tasks that have little to do with their primary roles and expertise — with engineers going on sales calls, accountants pitching in on customer service and chief financial officers running a division on the side.”

And this is surprisingly widespread.  “In a recent survey by Spherion Staffing, 53% of workers surveyed said they’ve taken on new roles, most of them without extra pay (just 7% got a raise or a bonus). Now that sales are picking up, there’s even more work to do, but companies are reluctant to hire, say human-resources experts.”

The Journal suggests  that this shift may be “permanent, as the quickening pace of change demands more flexibility from everyone at the office.”

Some management advisors try to put a positive spin on this development.  “Research shows that many successful leaders grew the most through “stretch experiences,” says a senior vice president at Aon Hewitt’s talent-and-rewards practice.  But a recent survey found that “just 43% of Americans are satisfied with their job — a record low.” (See “’Superjobs’: Why You Work More, Enjoy It Less.”)

And there are other consequences.  Overwork can impair the quality of performance as the brain gets fatigued.  Moreover, switching among tasks consumes extra energy and affects concentration.  But, perhaps most important, workers who feel exploited get angry and resentful or depressed.  Inevitably, they slow down, get sick, or they take revenge.

Those costs often don’t show up in workplace statistics, but they show up in people’s lives.  Generally speaking, economists know that very little is free.  The real question is who gets to pay for it.