TOPICS > Economy

Stress, Burnout Taking Toll on Many Still in U.S. Workforce

September 3, 2010 at 5:56 PM EDT
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As part of his ongoing series of reports on Making Sense of financial news, Paul Solman's reports how economic woes aren't just hard on the unemployed. As the recession drags on, many of those who are employed say they're overworked and underpaid.

JIM LEHRER: Now to another part of the labor story.It’s about those who have jobs, but are being asked to do ever more.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on the rise of the so-called burned-out worker.

It’s part of his ongoing reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: By this winter, when the great recession hit the two-year mark, Boston nurse Ann Driscoll’s patient load had become truly daunting.

ANN DRISCOLL, nurse:They have taken a lot of nurse’s aides away.They have cut the staffing down.They have closed an ICU.And we feel that it’s going to lead to bad-quality patient outcomes.

PAUL SOLMAN: In California, flight attendant Ramona Arellano-Snyder also feels overworked and underpaid.

RAMONA ARELLANO-SNYDER, Flight Attendant:We’re working more, but we’re — we’re not seeing any rewards for that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ditto for Maryland public defender Emily Livingston.

EMILY LIVINGSTON, assistant public defender, Montgomery County, Maryland:We are doing more with less.We have fewer attorneys right now handling an increasing caseload.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, in Boston, architect Lee Braun has had to do more in fewer hours since his workweek was cut to four days.

LEE BRAUN, architect: It kind of makes you wonder what recovery looks like. I mean, you know, if you’re able to do more with less, and you just keep doing that…

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, then employers might be reluctant to start hiring again, and folks both without and with jobs will suffer, too.

At a Mott’s plant in Williamson, New York, Shelly Snyder is on strike, in part because she was pressed to work overtime.

SHELLY SNYDER, Mott’s worker:I don’t think I should be on call or have to work 90 hours a week to make apple sauce.I just think it’s crazy.

PAUL SOLMAN: The pressure recalls the worker speedups of the depressed 1930s, famously satirized by Charlie Chaplin in the film “Modern Times,” management pushing workers to the edge or well beyond.

The official speedup data aren’t in yet on this downturn, but Juliet Schor, author of several books on work, including “Plenitude” and the 1991 bestseller “The Overworked American,” says high unemployment with no drop in output means overwork.

JULIET SCHOR, Boston College:We do know that we had massive layoffs.The workers who are left are doing much more work, and so we’re seeing a lot of anecdotal evidence of rising stress, burnout, and unmanageable kinds of schedules for people.

PAUL SOLMAN: A burned-out work force, yes, says Bill Driscoll of Robert Half, a staffing firm, that’s what workers report.

WILLIAM DRISCOLL, Robert Half:We surveyed 1,400 people across all lines of business in different jobs, and 37 percent said that they were overworked and underpaid.And even four in 10 said that they might want to look for another job, you know, as things start to improve.

PAUL SOLMAN: Take airlines, please.They have cut a sixth of their work force since the economy flatlined, on top of cuts made back in 2001 never restored.Arellano-Snyder flies for a major carrier.

RAMONA ARELLANO-SNYDER: We took a 33 percent pay cut initially, after 9/11.We’re working longer hours.We’re getting less rest on our layovers.We have fewer flights, which means the flights that we do have are packed, so we have people that are more grumpy because they are on planes that are crowded.

PAUL SOLMAN: JetBlue’s Steven Slater is the iconic example, of course.Though lacking footage of his passenger dust-up and subsequent suds-supported slide to freedom, one can only imagine how it actually looked.

CHILD: I love you.


PAUL SOLMAN: Arellano-Snyder neither approves of the behavior, nor thinks any of this is funny.

RAMONA ARELLANO-SNYDER: I’m just tired.You know, I’m working 10-to-12-hour days.But, a lot of times, you have a delay, and then you end up with even less rest.So, you might get maybe eight hours behind the door, which means you get to your hotel, and you have exactly eight hours before you have to go back to the airport.Well, you have to be at the airport an hour before your flight, so that already cuts it down to seven hours behind the door, and that doesn’t include the time it takes you to fall asleep.

You walk in the door, you’re supposed to jump in your bed and go right to sleep.That doesn’t happen for most people.You’re pretty tired when you get up in the morning.And, sometimes, it’s hard to even get yourself up in the morning.

PAUL SOLMAN: Given layoffs at his firm, architect Lee Braun is grateful for a job to support his family, even though he too is working harder.

LEE BRAUN: You feel like you have got to keep your job, so you have really got to do your work well, and you got to work hard and, you know, do what it takes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

LEE BRAUN: I think, from an employer’s perspective, that’s probably a pretty good thing.



PAUL SOLMAN: And a good thing, too, for that old ideal of economics, productivity, turning out more stuff per person.

Juliet Schor has analyzed data from time-motion studies of the sort that began in the 1900s.This one tested ways to save time in the stamping of order forms.

JULIET SCHOR: There’s almost no data on this topic, but I happened to have found an amazing data set.It shows, when the duration of unemployment goes up, people work harder and faster in the workplace.

PAUL SOLMAN: During the current job drought, says economist Andrew Sum, productivity has jumped a stunning 7 percent.

ANDREW SUM, economist, Northeastern University:This time around, we had one of the highest, you know, 15-, 18-month gains in productivity since the end of World War II.

Yet, at the same time, there is no evidence that the average worker has received an increase in their real weekly wage as a result of that productivity gain.For the most part, the vast majority of these gains went in the form of increased before-tax corporate profits.

PAUL SOLMAN: Corporate profits have, in fact, been quite high.

ANDREW SUM: Extraordinarily high in the last 18 months.

PAUL SOLMAN: At Mott’s, hourly workers are on strike, since their profitable parent company, Dr. Pepper Snapple, cut their pay and benefits.

Again, line worker Shelly Snyder:

SHELLY SNYDER: If I come here and I give you my life, and I’m here and I work and I do my job and I make a good product and I make you money, why should I have to make less?

PAUL SOLMAN: But at Dr. Pepper Snapple, Bob Callan says the company is no different than any other facing a tough competitive environment.

ROBERT CALLAN, Dr. Pepper Snapple:We’re focused on making sure that that facility can compete in the marketplace, and that we have — we convert — we Williamson into an efficient operation that — that has a competitive wage structure.That is our focus.

PAUL SOLMAN: For workers and those they serve, though, there are real costs to doing more with less.

In Maryland, attrition has forced fewer public defenders, already a stereotype of overwork, to handle more cases than ever.In the last two years, Emily Livingston’s average caseload grew from 12 to 20.

EMILY LIVINGSTON: It is sometimes physically difficult to handle that many cases in a single day.Sometimes, we will be in front of the judge in one courtroom handling a case, and we will be told that we’re needed in the other courtroom, that our cases need to be resolved in the other courtroom.So, it’s a juggling act, definitely, now more than ever.

PAUL SOLMAN: Livingston is hoarse from bronchitis that just won’t quit.She feels she shouldn’t take time off, though.

EMILY LIVINGSTON: If you have got, you know, clients who are in lockup, you want to come.You want to make sure that you’re there for that client to get those cases resolved.We don’t want to let them down, so we’re — we’re working harder to make sure that we don’t.

PAUL SOLMAN: Working harder in speeded-up America.And, with an unexpected productivity decline in the last quarter, there’s now even data to suggest that American workers, though mostly in services these days, may be, like workers of the past, reaching their limit.