Amazon and the Problem with Overworked Employees

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Amazon recently made headlines when The New York Times published a piece about the company’s high stress culture in which employees are pushed beyond their limit in the name of innovation and company success. Many were quick to point the finger at Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos for encouraging a culture where the company’s white-collar workers are expected to be available at all hours and where it is frowned upon to take time off even for health issues. While all of this certainly points to problems with Amazon, it is really a larger symptom of the culture we live in. Let’s face it: the U.S. has a big problem with overworked employees.

Does Technology Make Life Easier?

In July, Planet Money did an episode on economist John Maynard Keynes’s prediction that by the early 21st century, we would be able to work only 15 hours per week and meet all of our basic needs. Keynes said we would become more productive, thus reducing the amount of time we needed to work. This would free up time for more leisure activities. As the hosts of Planet Money pointed out, Keynes was right about productivity. We are able to produce far more goods than people did 100 years ago; however, we are nowhere close to that 15-hour workweek.

Many of us our tethered to our jobs by technology that allows us to call, email and text from just about anywhere. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans said on average they worked more than 40 hours per week and that the average workweek is 47 hours per week. As for salaried employees, 25% claimed that they average at least 60 hours per week. Clearly technology has not increased productivity to the point where we can work less. In fact, it seems that technology has made it possible for us to do more work and stretch our to-do lists by miles.

I have been a part of teams implementing new workplace technology. With each new piece of software comes the promise that it will free up all kinds of time by automating and streamlining processes. Sure, most tech delivers on this promise, but the end result is really that it frees up time to take on more work. In this sense, technology has failed to deliver us Keynes’s vision of the 15-hour workweek.

The Workplace & the Culture of Instant Gratification

I remember placing my first order from Amazon in the ‘90s, shortly after the company launched. Back then, Amazon was just an online bookstore. At that point, deliveries by drones were not even a twinkle in the collective eye of the American consumer. Amazon has since grown to be a huge operation with everything from household products to groceries to clothing, sports equipment and even streaming video. And, of course, they still have books. I have friends who cannot stop talking about all the benefits of Amazon Prime membership. Amazon is fulfilling a strong need in a busy time. When a few clicks gets you an order of toilet paper and other household goods delivered to your door within a few days, what’s not to love about such convenience?

But, as the article in The New York Times shows, convenience comes at a price. Behind the easy ordering process and the quick deliveries are huge distribution centers and corporate employees scrambling at all hours to develop the processes and technology to meet the ever-increasing demand of an instant-gratification culture. When we order something, we want it now, not two weeks from now. Technology has also made it such that we do not see all the people laboring behind the scenes to get our products to us quickly.

In a way, our desire for instant gratification is doing us in by creating a culture where feeling overworked is the norm. Sure, we have access to all kinds of products and services at the push of a button, but is it worth our mental health when we put in 60-hour weeks and have little time to enjoy the fruits of our labor?

How Do We Make a Change?

I have experienced similar situations to the ones told by Amazon employees. While mine were not always as extreme, there was a certain familiarity in the long hours and being pushed to the point of exhaustion. So, are we doomed to work at companies like Amazon where long hours are the norm and employees seem miserable?

I do not think it has to be this way. Change starts at the top and with owners who believe our personal needs are just as, if not more, important as work. Those at the top should lead by example and not put in long hours. If employees see the boss at work late and responding to email at midnight, they are likely to engage in the same style of working. In the culture of overwork, we have forgotten that time off is actually a good thing. It allows us to refresh and recharge. If we expect employees to work long hours without taking time off where they are relieved of all work responsibilities, they will become exhausted and therefore less productive.

This all sounds great in theory, but it will require a huge shift in how we think about work. At the end of my life, I know I do not want to say, “Wow, I’m sure glad I spent most of my vacations with my phone in my hand so I could stay in touch with the office.” Life is about much more than work. It is about the time we spend with the people we care about, the adventures we go on and even the days spent curled up under a blanket and lost in a good book. While the 15-hour workweek may never come to fruition, I think it is possible for us to shift our thinking about work and to remember that not everything has to be done yesterday.