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Article: Just Say "NO!"
The Extra-Long Workweek: Is it Ethical?
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The Extra-Long Workweek: Is it Ethical?
By Judith Harkham-Semas

This article first appeared in High Technology Careers magazine, April/May 1997, and is reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.

Californians may still have a reputation in other parts of the country for living laid back lives of fun in the sun, but we in Silicon Valley know better. Here, employers equip their offices with all sorts of amusements and amenities to help maintain employee spirit and energy for the 50- and 60- and 70- hour work weeks that have become the norm.

Brightly colored spiral slides to speed workers from one building level to another; catered dinners, pizzas, and even gourmet take-home fare for the family; worksite banking, travel, postal, cleaning, floral, gift, video, concierge, and you-name-it services--all these and more are turning corporate facilities into '90's versions of the company town.

Is this [work] trend ethical?  
Are employees   
placing too much value  
on work and   
the material things   
work makes possible?

Understanding that ethics is about fairness and equity in relationships, one must ask: Is this trend ethical? As Miriam Schulman questions in Issues in Ethics--a publication of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University (SCU)--"Are employers respecting the contractual arrangements they make with their employees? Are employees placing too much value on work and the material things work makes possible? What impact do such long workweeks have on families and, through them, on the common good?"

Although all the research isn't in, and what is in doesn't always agree, much of it points to a serious increase in recent decades in the amount of time Americans spend at their jobs. What everyone does agree on is that growing numbers of workers are feeling over-extended today.

And why shouldn't they? Cots are becoming standard in the cubicles of more and  more engineers. Even when workers go home, they're well equipped with cellular telephones, fax machines, modems, and e-mail to handle an extra bit of business whenever they have a free moment. "People who work for me should have phones in their bathrooms," one CEO told Juliet B. Schor, author of The Overworked American.

According to a 1996 survey by the International Survey Research Corp., 42 percent of employees characterized their workloads as excessive.  And it's common knowledge that the burgeoning trend of women in the workforce is driven in large part by economic necessity. According to Schor, "Just to reach their 1973 standard of living [production and non-supervisory employees] must work 245 more hours, or six extra weeks a year."

Corporate America's tidal wave of downsizing is another force contributing to the trend. It drives not only the extra hours most workers spend at their jobs, but also their growing stress because of their longer hours.

As one mid-level manager told Business Week magazine: "This year, I had to downsize my area by 25 percent. Nothing had changed in terms of the workload. It's very emotionally draining. I find myself not wanting to go into work because I'm going to have to push people to do more, and I look in their eyes sinking into the back of their heads--but they're not going to complain because they don't want to be the next 25 percent."

This manager's uneasiness about asking workers to do more for the same money and benefits is obvious.

Non-exempt employees are protected from unpaid overtime by the Fair Labor Standards Act. But even for exempt employees, who have traditionally considered extra hours on the job a sound investment in their careers, there is a limit. Eventually, as SCU finance professor Hersh Shefrin pointed out, "Something does give. It's not like people will get more efficient if we keep piling jobs on them. [Their over-extension] shows up in different places. It might show up in teaching or level of scholarship or the quality of the other services they do."

Even when employees are paid for their extra hours, problems usually result. Alexander Trotman, Ford Motor Company chair, recently told Time Magazine, "You don't get real productivity by simply ramping up the line speed. In the beginning, everyone enjoys the extra pay; but we all get tired, pressures build up, people get edgy, and tensions break out."
...job stress equals  
family stress  
and  family stress damages the common good. 

These tensions aren't sloughed off when the workers finally do arrive home. In fact, the harried "Soccer Mom" is becoming a symbol for all American workers, male and female, whose family time and leisure time are fast disappearing. More and more, we are discovering that job stress equals family stress, and that family stress damages the common good.

According to David M. Gordon, author of Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial "Downsizing," America's social problems have been unfairly blamed on "lazy workers, ungrateful immigrants, and welfare chiselers." He argues that falling wages, overwork, and other employment issues play a far more important role.

The good news is that many companies are coming to understand that to function at their highest levels of ability, workers must lead emotionally balanced personal lives. As a result, some employers are beginning to address the overwork issue. "A lot of forward-thinking companies recognize the problem, "said Manuel Velasquez, SCU Dirksen professor of business ethics. " In an effort to get the highest quality labor force, they make sure that company policies are designed to lay as little stress as possible on families."

Some firms try to integrate the family into the business by providing such services as on-site child care. Others rotate overtime so that no worker gets stuck continually with extra hours. Still others--Hewlett- Packard is one such example--are moving toward greater scheduling flexibility, allowing more work to be done at home, reducing company encroachment on weekend time, and developing unrestricted banks of leave time for employees to use for any reason they wish, as a way to ease the pressures of long hours.

Even though greater flexibility does help relieve stress, taking one's job home is still a double-edged sword. As Susan Seaburg, H-P America's field development manager, put it, "The good news is that now you can work anywhere. And the bad news is that now you can work anywhere."

A question to the Managers: 

"Which of the following things do you want me to take off my plate in order to do this new thing for you?"

Balancing the competing interests of people and the organizations with whom we have relationships--in other words, taking an ethical approach to our lives--requires setting, evaluating, and sometimes changing priorities.

At work we can change priorities, even given the typical power imbalance between employer and employee. For example, as new projects arise, we can go to those who expect us to handle them and ask, "Which of the following things do you want me to take off my plate in order to do this new thing for you?"

We can take a hard look at our personal priorities too, by applying Aristotle's standard of the Golden Mean to our lives. In evaluating ethical positions, Aristotle concluded that the Golden Mean--the middle or balanced position between two opposing extremes: e.g. courage, which lies midway between the extremes of rashness and cowardice-is the ethical, most effective approach to take.
Just saying "No"  
can help us discover the Golden Mean in our lives... 
the middle or balanced position between two opposing extremes... 
the ethical, most effective approach to take.

"Just Say NO" may have been a bust as an anti-drug campaign, but it can help us apply the Golden Mean to our lives, if we let it. Take a serious look to see if you're caught in a work-and-spend cycle: Slaving to earn enough to buy possessions you don't really need; substituting things for the empty spaces in your life when what you really want are emotionally fulfilling relationships with people you care about.

We have only to say "NO." No to keeping up with the neighbors. No to owning the latest or the fastest, or the most, or the best. Just saying no can help us discover the Golden Mean in our lives.

After all, in the long run, good ethics really is good business. Even  more important, it's good living.

About the Author:

Judith Harkham Semas is an internationally published freelance writer/editor/author based in San Jose, CA. Specializing in business and lifestyle subjects, she writes and edits for companies, professionals, and media-- both print and online. Her co-authored book with Chris DiSalvo--San Jose and Silicon Valley: Primed for the 21st Century, Publisher: Community Communications, Montgomery, Al, is now available in bookstores. Feel free to visit her website at or e-mail her at

Last updated February 21, 1998
This article first appeared in "High Technology Careers" Magazine, April/May 1997 Edition and is reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.
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