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Longer Work Hours Stress Families

"I am not authorized to be stressed," quipped Tom Ridge when a reporter asked if the job of homeland security secretary had worn him out.

Ridge reportedly has told colleagues that he may retire after the 2004 election, in part due to the extraordinary stress of his job and the need to earn a higher salary to pay his children's college tuition. Easy for him. If he quits public service, he can walk into a private-sector job with less pressure and earn 10 times his government pay.

But for most dual-income families, there's little to joke about. Squeezed in the vice of work and family obligations, these families struggle to support lifestyles they don't have time to enjoy. And every decade, they put in more hours at work.

While average hours per job increased a mere 3 percent from 1975 to 2002, family work hours -- the total hours worked by all family members in a week -- rose 11 percent over the same period, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC. These hours have increased as more women have entered the workforce, creating dual-income families."Such an increase in family work hours can erode the quality of family life, even as incomes rise," writes senior economist Jared Bernstein in the report.

Family/Work Arithmetic

The changes in family/work dynamics are deep, even structural."The arithmetic of the family has changed," says Kathleen Christensen, program director for Workplace, Workforce and Working Families at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City."The traditional family had two jobs, one paid, one not. Now there are three jobs to two adults -- two wage-earning jobs and one unpaid job doing the caring and domestic work."

And most U.S. workers are unhappy with the time crunch. More than half of American workers would like to change their hours, according to the Families and Work Institute whose 2001 study shows that 28 percent of workers often feel overworked.

Those results were echoed in a Monster Work/Life Balance survey in which 81 percent of respondents reported being unhappy with their work/life balance, and 60 percent reported feeling overworked.

Women on average work 41 hours a week, although they would prefer to work 29; men work 49 hours when they'd rather work only 37, according to the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute.

High Price to Pay

Women pay a particular price for balance."Mothers who work for pay spend as much time with children as mothers who do not work for pay," Christensen says. How do working mothers do it? By burning the midnight oil to finish work or laundry."They're losing almost a night's worth of sleep per week," Christensen says.

Men face their own challenge in trying to shoehorn work and family into finite days -- corporate cultures that brook no accommodation for males who also happen to be parents."If men want flexibility, in many workplaces they're seen as deviant," Christensen explains.

For many workers, the stress is chronic, not episodic."For most people, we're talking about maybe 15 or 20 years of serious work/life conflict," says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection in Minnetonka, Minnesota."Then the kids are gone, and you can give your all to your job if you want. But the child-rearing years happen to be exactly the years when your career is peaking. Our society is set up exactly wrong."

A Play for Balance

But at least some professionals may have alternatives."Today there are so many people who are making a conscious decision to take their corporate hats off," says Michelle Boggs, CEO of McKinley Marketing Partners Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia. McKinley supplies client companies with interim and project-based marketing managers who seek alternative work arrangements. In addition to consulting, unconventional options include working part-time, job sharing, telecommuting and using flextime.

Before giving up any perks to work part-time, consider all your benefits needs -- now and in the future. Another caveat: If you're contemplating a change to your work schedule or employment status, prepare for obstacles you may encounter if you decide to return to a conventional work arrangement and career track in the future.

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