Sunday, June 24, 2012

Speeding Up and Multi-tasking - Worker Burnout in Today's Economy

Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery at Mother Jones discuss the plight of workers in an economy where jobs are scarce and employers are reluctant to take on new staff. For the record, they come from a very left wing perspective, and I disagree with their conclusions, but I think they have hit on some things that need saying. They argue that we are harming Americans by the constant pressure to be available 24/7 via technology and through our attempts to handle our overwhelming workload through multitasking. With corporate productivity up and but employment not so much, they argue that the greed of evil corporations is at the root of the trend.

They make any number of sweeping generalizations in the article, but I do that as well on this blog. I'd like to share some salient paragraphs.
Sound familiar: Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you've been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, like dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list?

Guess what: It's not you. These might seem like personal problems—and certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is happy to perpetuate that notion—but they're really economic problems.

. . .

What about offshoring? That's certainly a factor. But increasingly, US workers are also falling prey to what we'll call offloading: cutting jobs and dumping the work onto the remaining staff. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal story about "superjobs," a nifty euphemism for employees doing more than one job's worth of work—more than half of all workers surveyed said their jobs had expanded, usually without a raise or bonus.

In all the chatter about our "jobless recovery," how often does someone explain the simple feat by which this is actually accomplished? US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up, and voilá! No wonder corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.

. . .

Multitasking seems the obvious fix—let me just answer this email while I help with your homework! But here's the scary research news: Minus a few freakish exceptions, most of us cannot actually multitask. Try to keep up a conversation with your spouse while scanning the BlackBerry, and empirical data shows (PDF) that you do both things poorly. And not only that: If you multitask constantly, your actual mental circuitry erodes, and your brain loses its ability to focus. (Same with sleep: Aside from a tiny minority of mutants, humans perform distinctly and progressively worse when they get fewer than eight hours a night. Go ahead and cry.)

So of course the reason for all of this is Citizens United, I know you jumped to that conclusion as well and union busting. But these trends were in place before that decision and union membership in the private sector has been declining for years. I have previously discussed regulatory uncertainty as a key reason for the jobless recovery, but I will admit that this may not explain these trends fully either.

Bauerlein and Jeffery state that corporate profits are up, so there is no excuse for this behavior. However, much of the growth in corporate profits have come from the financial sector (sorry that I can't find the link for that), where the fed has been force feeding liquidity. Only recently have sales shown improvement. So for most sectors, finance aside, it made sense to keep staff hiring on a short lease, especially with future worker costs so uncertain.

Meanhwile, the authors point to an example of at least one successful company that is trying to put a lid on the excess.

Mule Design Studio, a web-design shop with a number of blue-chip clients, has a saner policy: "Our office hours are Monday through Friday 9-6. We do not hand out our cell phone numbers. On the weekend, we cease to exist."
Ultimately stupidity like what we are currently suffering through has a way of passing. As corporations figure out that their employees are making bad decisions because they are multitasking and not getting enough sleep, I think the speedup and offloading will slack off. Americans will always work hard, but the current maniacal levels of activity just aren't productive and are due to end.

And the answer isn't repeal of Citizens United and more unionization.


  1. A lot of jobs have always been 24/7-- ranching and farming come to mind-- BUT that demand is based on things that must be done, not so much "people want to feel like they can reach you on an impulse.

  2. Ranching and Farming is a poor example to use for multitasking. Office jobs where there are multi role systems in place are a good example of what is being depicted here.

    Ranching and Farming don't utilize multirole system to increase output. Your not performing two tasks at once, going home after a hard days work thinking about that turnip you didn't yank out of the ground.

  3. ....pretty clear you haven't been around very many good ranches or farms, but additionally you don't seem to have understood my point.