Katharine Zaleski, We All Deserve a Break!

The CEO apologized for taking potshots at working moms, who may have clocked fewer hours at the office than she did. But should any of us be martyrs to our jobs?

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Back in my barista days, my manager told me to never stand still. No one wants a triple espresso or half-caf double foam latte right now? Well, then wipe down the counter. So during slow times, I wiped that counter again. And again. And again. There isn’t a piece of porcelain in the White House China Room that sparkles like that counter did. All the while, I looked forward to the white-collar jobs of my glorious future during which I would never need to feign industriousness to impress the powers-that-be.

You see where this is going, right? Once I started work as a fact-checker, it was actually worse. As a coffeehouse minion, I departed the minute my shift ended. As an editorial minion, I was supposed to be glued to my seat for eight hours—or nine, or ten—even when there was nothing to check. Diligence points were given to people who stayed late enough to expense a cab home even if they’d stumbled in, hung-over, around 11 a.m. It became clear to me soon enough: The time of day you put your computer to sleep telegraphed the degree of your dedication to the job. What you accomplished during that day mattered—but not as much. Not so much.

On March 3, Fortune’s website published an instantly viral mea culpa by Katharine Zaleski, the co-founder and president of PowerToFly, in which she apologized to working moms for having denigrated their work ethic in the past. “I was obsessed with the idea of showing my commitment to the job by staying in the office ‘late’ even though I wouldn’t start working until 10:30 a.m. while parents would come in at 8:30 a.m.,” she writes. Good for Zaleski for realizing (albeit belatedly) that the hour an employee leaves isn’t a fair indicator of how much time she’s put in; as she notes, early-arriving employees tend not to get the same fanfare.

But we shouldn’t just be asking working moms to compensate for leaving at a reasonable time by coming in early. We should be interrogating a work culture that all too often prizes attendance above performance. And we should be questioning why we expect anyone to live at the office—meaning not just working moms, but also working dads; people with other caregiving duties, such as responsibilities for aging parents; and, yes, even single people who might enjoy seeing daylight now and again.

Certainly there are plenty of jobs where you have to be on the premises to get them done. Think: receptionist, retail worker, ER doctor. But for many office workers, there is a lot to be said for a shorter, or more flexible day in which employees are ultimately judged by what they do, not where they are when the clock strikes 6 or beyond.

Take it from The Economist, who are not typically considered the biggest proponent of slackerism: According to data from 1990 to 2012, Greeks worked over 2,000 hours a year, while Germans put in just 1,400. And yet German workers were 70 percent more productive. That’s because there is an inverse relationship between hours worked and the amount you get done (something you’ve probably already suspected about the co-worker who grouses about her endless, oh-so-exhausting days—and yet never seems to stop watching YouTube at her desk). By this measure, Americans must be paragons of inefficiency. After all, as Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post notes, we “work the most extreme hours of any advanced economy, save Korea, where stressed out workers have begun checking themselves into prisonlike institutions to get away from it all, and Japan, where they’ve invented a word for death from overwork: karoshi.”

Making matters worse is that working too much causes a snowball effect. Longer hours lead to a host of maladies: increased risk of burnout; anxiety, depression and heart problems; and sleep disorders. The productivity loss from sleep deprivation alone robs workplaces nationwide of about $54 million, according to a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

What all of this means is that any staffer who can get all her work done and still have time to get her kids from day care (or her sweaters from the dry cleaner, or whatever else it is that she has to do) should be praised and promoted; hello, she’s saving the company money! And that drone who never leaves the office? Yeah, Boss, it might be time to have closed-door talk with that one.


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