The new commodity: Long hours and hard work

The case for becoming a prized 'value worker' in your organization

We dread hearing the news that something once considered unique or innovative has turned into a commodity, where the only differentiator is price. We especially don't like it when that transformation happens in our own careers -- when a prized skill becomes so ubiquitous that it can be had for pennies on the dollar. We might as well admit that this shift has happened to another treasured asset: our ability to solve any problem by simply whipping ourselves into a coffee-drenched frenzy and working harder.

And US employees do love to work. According to the 2007 Vacation Deprivation Report, "51.2 million Americans are vacation deprived, earning (14 days) and taking (11 days) the least amount of vacation days among their international counterparts." Furthermore, the number of US workers not using all their vacation days is on the increase (31 percent in 2005, 33 percent in 2006 and 35 percent in 2007).

Personal technology was supposed to help us get more work done more quickly, theoretically boosting leisure time. In a study of 2,134 adults published in September 2008 by the Pew Research Center, participants were asked if the availability of the Internet, e-mail, mobile phones and instant messaging have actually increased the demand that they work more hours. Of the respondents who held professional or managerial positions, 59% said work-hour demands have increased. Of those who own BlackBerries and PDAs, 63 percent said their gadgets have increased demands that they work more hours. So Americans work like crazy, and personal technology leads us to work more, not less.

An extensive investigation performed in 2001 by the University of South Australia's Center for Sleep Research underscored the negative impact of long work hours on employee productivity. Citing seven separate studies performed between 1973 and 1999, the authors concluded, "At the superficial level, having few employees working long hours appears financially beneficial to companies. However, the research indicates otherwise. Indeed, the specific impact of extended hours on fatigue and subsequent performance and productivity has been well documented throughout the last few decades."

So, why do we continue to work so hard -- especially when our heroic efforts eventually resemble a cheap commodity with ever-shrinking value? That's a very timely question, because we are now entering an era where companies that recently cut their development staffs to the bone will have to cut deeper still. That means even fewer people will have to do even more work -- all the while worrying that their jobs will be the next to go.

Your tendency and mine in this unavoidable situation will be to pile on the hours, get crazier, and work longer and harder -- when we are probably already near the breaking point. But don't do it -- avoid putting your health or your personal relationships at risk.

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