Overcoming the “Overwork Premium”

Taking the subway home from work at 8:30pm the other day, it was only too appropriate that I would come across a Times article documenting the “overwork premium” – that is, the phenomenon of lavishly rewarding workers for working excessively long hours.

That might sound like a good problem to have. And to be clear, in an era when hourly workers often struggle to skate by, it is. But it’s still a problem – especially since it’s a leading reason why many well-educated women are stepping back from the workforce after having kids.

As Daniela Jampel and Matthew Schneid, the couple profiled in the article discovered, if they both worked 40 hours a week, they would make less than they do by Matthew working 60 hours and Daniela working 20. Daniela also has a law degree and could take on a high-powered job. But the abbreviated schedule frees her up to shoulder more childcare – freeing Matthew to put in longer hours at the firm, earning them more money over all.

“Being willing to work 50 percent more doesn’t mean you make 50 percent more, you make like 100 percent more,” she told the Times. “The trade-off between time and money is not linear.”

Having gotten married recently myself, the article resonated. My wife and I both have MBAs. We both work long hours in jobs we enjoy. We’re fortunate to have the opportunities we have. But when we have kids, how will we trade off responsibilities? Can we both “have it all” – satisfying careers and family life?

The challenge is that in today’s work force, there aren’t great options for couples with kids (to say nothing of single parents!). Jobs either don’t pay enough or require unpredictable hourly schedules, or they pay enough but require employees to be “always on.” Either way, family and community life suffer. Public policies like universal preschool, longer school hours, and paid family leave could help. But as the Times rightly observes:

“[T]he ultimate solution … is not to make it possible for mothers to work crazy hours, too. It’s to reorganize work so that nobody has to.”

Stated differently: What we have isn’t just a public policy problem. It’s a culture problem. When hustle and #TGIM culture dominate – when we define an individuals’ moral worth based on their contribution to the economy instead of their contribution to their community – should we be surprised that our labor market creates untenable tradeoffs for women, men, and families?

Last summer, my wife and I visited Denmark and Sweden for our friends’ wedding. Throughout the airports in Copenhagen and Stockholm, I couldn’t help but notice all the amenities for families with kids. Even in baggage claim – which is typically, at least in New York, its own special circle of hell – the walls were lined with colorful cartoons, toy wheels to turn, toy gears to spin, puzzles and more. You could imagine an exhausted parent waiting for their bag relieved that there was something to occupy their child. It was the tiniest thing. But it spoke volumes about a culture that invests to support families. And no doubt, that cultural commitment helps explain why women’s labor force participation is higher in Sweden and Denmark than the United States, even as birth rates are similar.

I’d love to see a similar cultural shift here. I know when I’ve managed people in the past, I’ve tried to create a flexible work environment for my teams. Prioritize family. Take time off to stay fresh and recharge. Just make sure to communicate availability and get good work done on time. Granted, it’s easier to do in some roles than others.

But unfortunately there’s only so much individual managers can do when the market doesn’t enable people to maximize their flexibility — and actively incentivizes imbalance. This raises the question: How do we redesign work in a way that enables men and women to contribute and advance, while also allowing families and communities to thrive? Enabling people at all levels to better negotiate for working terms, conditions and pay might be one thing to try. Creating more work share opportunities could also be beneficial. And yes, public policies like universal pre-k and pay parity laws could make a difference as well.

Wouldn’t it be great to see a “family premium” instead of an “overwork premium?”

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