By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/1/2004 4:35:25 PM ET 2004-09-01T20:35:25

Labor Day weekend is approaching,  and if you feel overworked and underappreciated, you are hardly alone.

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Even though the economy has added 1.5 million jobs over the past year, that has not come close to making up for the 2.6 million jobs that disappeared in the recession of 2001 and its aftermath. Employers have responded to increasing demand mainly by squeezing more out of existing workers — often after multiple rounds of layoffs.

With many companies extremely reluctant to add jobs, nearly two-thirds of workers surveyed by Harris Interactive say their workload has increased over the past six months — with more than 10 percent of workers asserting they are putting in an extra 10 hours a week or more. And they are not happy about it. More than half answered no when asked, “Do you feel your employer appreciates and rewards you well?”

Some of these results reflect a long-term trend of employers demanding more from their workers, in part because of advances in technology that make it possible for fewer people to do more.

In the tight labor market of the 1990s boom years, those increased demands often were accompanied by sharply rising wages, improved benefits and increased flexibility in the workplace. But with plenty of labor available here and around the world, wage gains have tapered off and many companies have shifted their focus to cost-cutting and compliance issues, paying less attention to worker satisfaction, said Mike DiPietro, a vice president of Kronos, a workforce management company that commissioned the Harris survey.

And that, he said, is a mistake.

“This is not just a touchy-feely, let’s-make-people-feel-happier issue,” he said. “This is a business issue. It will become even more so as the economy starts to turn around and these overworked employees start to look around.”

DiPietro said it is long past time for companies to stop rewarding employees simply on the basis of how many hours they work and to focus instead on results, a concept known as performance-based management.

"With salaried employees especially it’s really difficult in many professions to stand out,” he said. The result is that many companies have a fostered culture in which workers succeed by arriving at the office  before their boss, staying late, working weekends and staying in touch constantly. But there is a better way, he said.

“Best-practices companies are focusing more on the achievement of goals,” he said. “It puts the focus on the more important thing which is the work — not the number of hours it takes to achieve the work.”

Computer software facilitates the process by allowing employers to measure everything from the number of keystrokes entered by a typist to the number of arrests made by a police officer. But Bruce Tulgan, author of “H.O.T. Management” and other books, cautioned that performance management does not work if supervisors rely solely on such objective measurements.

“It’s just not enough to have a system that measures objective data,” he said. “You have to have managers directly engaged on an ongoing basis with their direct reports, constantly spelling out expectations, constantly setting deadlines and parameters. … Where you see this happening, that is where performance management really works.”

But managers like the data. Dave Imhoff, director of clinical systems at St. Mary's Medical Center in Huntington, W.Va., said he is considering adding a system that would measure productivity for certain employees such as lab workers. He was more excited about a system being phased in that will adjust staffing needs to patient levels in every department on a shift-by-shift basis. Ultimately nurses will be able to "self -schedule" for shifts they want.

"Anytime you can give the employees closer to what they want, they're going to be happier," he said. "And the happier you can keep them, the longer they will stay."

The results of the Harris survey were released Wednesday, days after controversial new overtime regulations were imposed by the Bush administration, becoming another point of contention in a tight presidential election campaign. Democrats complain the complex new rules will mean pay cuts for millions of middle-class workers.  Labor Department officials say the rules will make 1.3 million relatively low-paid workers newly eligible for overtime and will strengthen the rights of millions more.

One thing is certain — the workplace is a far different world than it was when the nation’s overtime standards initially were set in the 1930s.

The paradigm of the 20th century workplace was Henry Ford’s car factory, an assembly line where workers clock in, do a single task repeatedly, and clock out. In the 21st century, we think of concepts like work-life balance, flex time and the “road warrior” who keeps in touch from the car, airport, hotel or home office.

“The idea that you go to work from 9 to 5 in the same location every day has really been eroded. That’s not how most people go to work these days,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.

More than a quarter of all factory workers now have some college education, and they need it, said Challenger.

“I do think people’s job responsibilities are becoming more complex,” he said. “They have to do more on their own because of all the technology.”

All these hours and responsibilities add up to a lot of stress. More than half the 1,052 workers surveyed said they feel “overtired and overwhelmed.” More than a quarter said they have trouble balancing their work and personal life and 21 percent blamed their work for frequent mood changes. A healthy 37 percent, however, said their work life has no effect on their personal life.

One-third of the respondents in the Harris survey said their workweek has increased over the past six months, and a third of those workers, or nearly 11 percent of the total, said their workweek has gone up by 10 hours or more. The results were nearly the same for hourly and salaried employees. And most of them expect no relief from the longer hours over the next six months.

DiPietro reasons that eventually employers will squeeze about as much productivity out of their current workers as possible and will have to ramp up staffing, creating opportunities for frustrated workers. And worker turnover can be extremely costly — a 1998 study found that nearly half of employers spent $10,000 or more to replace a single employee, and 20 percent spent more than $30,000 per employee.

Not only that, but employee satisfaction and company profitability “correlate very highly,” said DiPietro of Kronos. He pointed to a study by Hewitt Associates which compared financially successful companies — defined as publicly traded companies with average annual profit growth of 10 percent or more — with companies that were not as successful.

Workers at  the so-called “double-digit growth companies” were far more likely to describe their workplace as “an exceptional place to work” — one which they would recommend without hesitation to a friend seeking employment.

It is impossible to say whether happy employees make a company successful or vice versa. “It’s a chicken or egg question,” said Steven Gross, leader of U.S. compensation consulting for Mercer Human Resources. “When companies are more profitable there is less pressure on cost control. They are growing and there are more opportunities. When the company is shrinking there is no room for career growth, and there is less money for reward programs. It’s just not as much as fun.”

What would it take to make workers happier? Gross said the most important motivating factor for workers in every geography around the world is “being treated with respect.” After that are the usual suspects — base pay, benefits, long-term career potential and opportunity for bonus compensation.

“I think there is evidence that happier, less-stressed employees are more productive,” said DiPietro. “At what point someone crosses that line I don’t know.”

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