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Exiting the fast lane: job sharing is one route to discovering the personal and environmental benefits of working less.


According to the United Nations' International Labor Organization, the typical American worker puts in five weeks more on the job per year than his or her British counterpart and twelve-and-a-half weeks more than the Germans. While Canadians work somewhat less than Americans do, and enjoy longer vacations and paid family leave, they are also feeling the pressure of overwork.

And, increasingly, arguments are being made that the results are not only harmful to one's health, but to family and civic life, as well as to the environment. Take Back Your Time is a major U.S./Canadian initiative that challenges the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine. Among the many ways they list that time stress affects our lives are health effects like accidents, burnout, reducing time for exercise and consumption of fast foods and stress-related illnesses; less time with families and other relationships; less time to get to know our neighbors and to volunteer; less time for self-development and spiritual growth; and less time to be engaged citizens.

Not only has the pursuit of income put many of us on a treadmill, it has also negatively affected the health of the planet. For instance, studies show that lack of time encourages use of convenience and throwaway items and reduces recycling rates. Then there's the amount of energy we use commuting, heating and lighting office buildings, and so on.

A 2006 study by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research looked at the environmental effects of shorter working hours by comparing the European and American economic models. Europe currently consumes about half as much energy per person as the United States, but the researchers calculated that if the countries of "Old Europe"--Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom--were to increase annual work hours to American levels, they could consume some thirty percent more energy than they do at present. If the United States had adopted European standards for work hours, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2000 would have been seven percent lower than its actual 1990 emissions, which was the negotiated goal for the U.S. in meeting Kyoto standards.

On the other hand, with unemployment at record or near-record levels, many people don't have the opportunity to decide whether or not to have the pressure of overwork! So, if you are trying to get back into the job market after having been laid off, or are trying to enter the working world for the first time, now is a great time to re-think your relationship with work and not get back onto that treadmill. At least not totally.

Although businesses are generally very opposed to shortened work hours, some public sector jurisdictions in North America are taking the first small steps in that direction by offering their employees a four-day work week many motivated by high gas prices and general financial pressures. In 2008, Utah became the first state to make the four-day work week mandatory for about 17,000 state employees. Governor Jon Huntsman says he made the change to reduce the state's carbon footprint, increase energy efficiency, improve customer service and provide workers with more flexibility. The four-day work week is widely recognized as a quality-of-life issue, especially for younger employees who want to enhance their work-life balance.

If that need for work-life balance is making you wonder if full employment is such a great thing, why not become part of the job sharing movement? Two people sharing the same position in a company is an alternative work option--like the shorter work week--that can help create jobs for employers, while allowing employees to re-think their relationship with work.

Many forward-looking companies are used to employees from Gen X and Y wanting flexible work arrangements, especially as they become new parents. But your proposal must be well thought through. Experts say that a successful job sharing arrangement starts with finding and choosing a compatible work partner. Your search for a partner can begin with your current workplace (a compatible coworker or someone on leave), employment agencies that specialize in your field, professional networks and online business networking sites, and older students at colleges and universities.

Once you've identified someone, the two of you can present a realistic, workable, persuasive job sharing proposal, which details how the job will get done under the job sharing arrangement. That holds true whether you're applying for a new position or trying to sell your manager on the idea.

However, remember that whether it's a four-day work week or a job sharing arrangement, the benefits for yourself, your family and the environment--will accrue only if you implement the larger lifestyle changes that such arrangements can facilitate. Your extra time needs to be spent abolishing the use of convenience items people rely upon when they're time-stressed, such as fast food, disposable diapers or bottled water. It needs to be accompanied by the realization that working less allows us to produce less, consume less and pollute less. And, to have an eco-friendly result, increased time also needs to result in behaviors like cycling or walking, drying laundry on a clothesline.

Groups like Take Back Your Time, the Vancouver-based Work Less Party and The Center for a New American Dream in Maryland (see resources sidebar) are dedicated to helping support and nurture the transition to less work and more time. Their emphasis is on living sustainably and on celebrating non-material values like family and community life. And what better gift can we give to ourselves and our families this holiday season, than to rethink how we spend our time and money?

"In our society, if we are not productive, it is that we are wasting time. However, we must often know how to lose time n order to better appreciate it. To rejoice in the pleasure of contemplation, to pause in order to better succeed, to simply relax, to practice being in the moment ... There is an art to stopping ... and to savoring the moments that go by in all of their magic!" ~ Isabelle Gingras, time consultant, Montreal, Quebec


Learn more

Work Less Party

Take Back Your Time Day

The New American Dream

Work Options

Job Sharing: Two Heads Are Better than One by Mary O'Hanlon and Angela Morella (Allen & Unwin, 2004)

Workers of the World Relax by Conrad Schmidt (WLP Publishing, 2006)

Take Back Your Time by John de Graaf, ed (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003)

Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World by William J. and Barbara Carlson (Holt, 2002)

What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy: Tips for Parenting in a Commercial World by Betsy Taylor (Grand Central Publishing, 2004)

Living Simply with Children by Marie Sherlock (Three Rivers Press, 2003)

Slow Money by Woody Tasch (Chelsea Green, 2008)

In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore (Vintage Canada, 2004)

Slow Is Beautiful by Cecile Andrews (New Society, 2009)

Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment? by David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot (Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2006)

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life's co-founder and editor. She has been an advocate of alternative work arrangements since the 1980s.
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Author:Priesnitz, Wendy
Publication:Natural Life
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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