Things are getting tougher for many people at work, as companies seeking to improve efficiency push employees to work harder, according to a story in today’s Los Angeles Times. But this trend doesn’t just play out in the workplace. It also makes a profound difference in how people behave at home and in their communities.
As jobs become more demanding and unstable, the amount of time Americans can devote to their friends, families and communities takes a hit too, experts say.
“The ability of people to spend time at voluntary organizations, churches, youth groups – their social capital – goes down. They can’t keep their homes, they can’t take care of their own health,” said Paul Osterman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “It’s all tied to the economic pressure people are under.”
Osterman led a team of researchers into the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas, where many jobs have been created, but they’re low-wage positions with little job stability. The effects of this economic stability at the workplace are evident in homes, he says: Parents spend a lot of time at work but can’t afford childcare, so kids grow up watching too much TV and don’t do their homework. Economic stress leads to a high divorce rate. In essence, parents who have jobs – but bad ones – don’t have the time to raise their children, who will grow up without a good education and also get tough jobs.
When people are asked to produce more at work, they have less time and concentration at home, experts say. That includes everyone from the waitress who has to take on more tables and is too tired to help her son with his homework, as well as the high-paid lawyer who takes phone calls on vacation and is expected to work seven days a week.
Ron Harp may be an extreme example of this. Harp, 54, became an aircraft mechanic in 1977 because the aviation industry was known for treating its skilled workers well. In the last decade, though, his contract and pension have been gutted, and benefits and vacation days lessened. He makes the same amount of money he made a decade ago. Then, when American Airlines closed the facility where he worked in Kansas City, he began commuting to his new workplace, which is in Texas. He barely sees his family any more, and says the house that keeps his family in Missouri is falling apart because he’s never there to fix things that break.
“It was a great job back in the day, with top pay and benefits” he said. “Now, all those things have been whittled away.”
Traveling back and forth so much, Harp barely has time to read a newspaper, much less take time to volunteer at home. Many others are in the same position in the post-recession economy: People must travel to where the jobs are, often leaving families behind.
Political engagement often declines when the workplace is a harsher place. Unions were once a driving force behind civic engagement at work, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Now that they’re such a small part of the private workforce, there’s no one at work encouraging employees to go out and vote, he said.
When people don’t like their jobs, or feel stressed at them, they’re also not predisposed to volunteer in the community, give blood, or participate in food drives organized through their employer (if, indeed, their employer still organizes food or blood drives or community activities).
“If they don’t like their employer, it’s not going to be a path to engagement,” he said.
Civic engagement has been proved to help people flourish, Levine said. They develop skills that help them at work, they’re less depressed and they live longer, he said.
Brian Sheehan thinks the difficult situation at his employer is literally making his colleagues sick – both mentally and physically. The Manhattan title insurance closer has seen the staff at his office cut by about 50% since the recession, and those who remain are paid less than they were before the recession.
“Of the 32 people who are left, every one of them is on anti-anxiety pills,” Sheehan said. “People are frightened and depressed.”
The American Psychological Assn. estimates that workplace stress costs employers $300 billion a year because of absenteeism, diminished productivity and insurance costs. And that study was completed before the recession really took hold.