Take Back Your Time

Should We be Working Less and Enjoying Ourselves More?

In 1999, telephone line repairman Brent Churchill was killed by 7,200 volts of electricity. He had worked almost continuously for three days with less than five hours of sleep when he inadvertently grabbed a live cable without his insulating gloves.

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The average American puts in five additional weeks per year, making the U.S. the world"s most overworked industrial nation.© PhotosToGo

"We are working ourselves to death and we are defining ourselves according to that frenzy," says environmental scientist and author David Wann. "One thing leads to another in a lifestyle that is so tightly compressed that we can’t see any other alternatives." Wann, coauthor of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, is part of a new movement called Take Back Your Time, which focuses on how overworking impairs all areas of life, including health, family and the environment. The movement is supported by such groups as the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University, The Simplicity Forum, the Simple Living Network and the Center for a New American Dream.

On October 24, 2003, Take Back Your Time had its first commemorative day, and movement leaders are hoping that what was learned at its series of teach-ins and discussions will raise the consciousness of workers and policy makers everywhere.

"We are in the midst of a crash but we haven’t hit the ground," says Vicki Robin, coauthor of Your Money or Your Life. "Americans think that we should be rugged individuals, that we should "tough it out," but we are the most overworked industrial nation on Earth. People are developing stress-related illnesses and can’t raise their own children."

In the movement’s new handbook, Take Back Your Time: Fighting Time Poverty and Overwork in America, Harvard sociologist Juliet Schor, who also wrote The Overworked American, reports that from 1973 to 2000, the average American worker put in five additional weeks a year. This equates to 200 more work hours in a year.

According to this movement, over working, or "time poverty," causes family time to be limited, and results in unhealthy relationships and higher levels of stress. This contributes to stress-induced health conditions and unhealthy living patterns.

"In our increasingly fast-paced lives we need time more than ever," says John de Graff, coordinator of Take Back Your Time and the editor of the handbook. "We should take the opportunity to trade our increases in productivity for leisure time rather than more stuff we don’t really want." de Graff claims that Americans have over-valued productivity, leading them to put money ahead of time. "Part of why we are working so hard is to produce more and more, and that is unsustainable," he says. "If everyone adopted the American lifestyle we would need four Earth-like planets."

The movement’s solution is simple: cut back work hours and start enjoying a simpler life. Instead of laying off thousands of workers, de Graff suggests cutting back the number of hours so everyone will still be employed. The idea can seem simplistic because, for many people, cutting back would mean losing their benefits. "We have a sizeable amount of people in this country who would be willing to trade pay for some time off," says de Graff. "And those folks should be given that opportunity without losing their benefits."

Tim Kasser, a psychologist and author of The High Price of Materialism, says that when he asks people how they are feeling, the first response is often that they are busy. Kasser and psychologist Kirk Warren Brown found a correlation between the number of hours worked and well-being. According to their study, the less people worked the happier they were, and the more likely they were to live their lives in an environmentally friendly way.

Kasser and Brown conducted a survey that consisted of a list of 40 environmentally beneficial activities, and they asked questions according to the "ecological footprint" model. This model measures the amount of acres needed to sustain a person’s lifestyle. For example, if a person eats meat, doesn’t buy locally or never recycles, they would have a larger ecological footprint than a vegetarian who does buy things locally and recycles. A healthy ecological footprint is usually set at five acres or less. Today, however, Americans average about 24 acres—the highest footprint in the world except for the United Arab Emirates, which averages 25 acres.

"President George W. Bush told Americans after September 11 that they could help the economy by shopping," says Kasser. "Shopping has become a patriotic thing." Kasser says part of the push behind the Take Back Your Time movement is to show people that it is socially acceptable to cut back work hours and not consume as much.

de Graff says America should model Norway in its approach to consumerism. "Could we ever imagine the day when a U.S. politician would say, "It might be better if we as a nation consumed less and worked less?"" he asks. "Norwegians are saying that. If we had a leader who was calling for it, we would be a lot more secure in the long run."

de Graff says that while cutting back hours does mean that people would have to scale back on some consumption, working less is by no means a sacrifice. "It doesn’t mean wearing a hair shirt and living in a cave," de Graff explains. "It means being reasonable and finding a lifestyle that is livable and sustainable."