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Sunday, October 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Is it any wonder Americans want their time back?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Take Back Your Time events


Oct. 23: Seattle Take Back Your Time Celebration, 6:30-9:30 p.m., the Tahoma Room, Mountaineers Building, 300 Third Ave. W., in lower Queen Anne. Speakers, theater, refreshments and small group conversations. Speakers: Cecile Andrews, Circle of Simplicity; John de Graaf, Take Back Your Time Day national coordinator; state Sen. Karen Keiser; Stephen Bezruchka, University of Washington School of Public Health; Shannon Borg, Slow Food-Seattle; Gretchen Burger, Take Back Your Time Day; Julie Watts, Statewide Poverty Action Network; the Rev. Roger Hudson, Earth Ministry. Entertainment: Rebel Voices; Michael Bade and Co.; Irene and the Bopps.

Oct. 24: Take Back Your Time Day "Spectacle," noon, Westlake Center. Street theater and more. For more information on either event, contact Gretchen Burger (petulia@netzero.net).

Oct 24: Events at University of Washington. Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the quiet museum spaces, free admission 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Henry Art Gallery, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41 Street. Art and Contemplation Meditation at 3 p.m. in the "James Turrell: Knowing Light" exhibit. Drop-In Poetry Workshop 2-5 p.m. in the Education Studio; www.henryart.org. Yoga sessions at Odegaard Undergraduate Library (Room 222) 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Story Hour at Suzzallo Library's Smith Room, 1:30-2:30 p.m., Allison Cox, author and therapist.

On the Web: www.timeday.org or e-mail John de Graaf at jdegraaf@kcts.org or phone 206-443-6747. "Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America" is available at local stores or through Berrett-Koehler Publishers at www.bkconnection.com or 800-929-2929.

Katie Bill is a woman of high tolerance.

Ever since the driver's-side door of her van broke two years ago, she's used the passenger door, climbing over the console four to six times a day.

Bosses and salon clients loved that willingness to accommodate. Katie, could you work on Sunday? Could you foil my hair at 9 p.m.?

But one day, two months ago, after nearly 18 years of working impossibly long hours punctuated by panic attacks, this married mother of two woke up and said:

"I can't do this anymore. I'm hating my life."

"It just becomes the way we live," says Bill. "If you're not going Mach II with your hair on fire, then there's something wrong."

That something wrong is pervading the whole nation, say organizers of the new "Take Back Your Time" movement. The group, which has strong Seattle ties, hopes Americans will rally on Oct. 24, national "Take Back Your Time Day," to talk about how overwork and over-scheduling have thrown us out of whack.

The United States once led the way in reducing work hours. Progress was defined as a better balance between work and home life. Now we have the longest hours of any mature industrialized nation, with the average American worker adding 199 hours to a year's work since 1973, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. — and still it's not enough. Half of Americans surveyed by a Harris Poll said they were not taking a week of vacation over the summer, citing economic and work concerns.

Take Back Your Time Day is on Oct. 24 for dramatic symbolism. That day comes nine weeks before the end of the year — or about 350 work hours. Time Day organizers say the average American who has a job works that many more hours than the average European each year. Yes, they have smaller TVs, cars and houses, but they also have shorter work hours, four-week-minimum vacations by law, and more holidays.

Long work hours are not the only pressure on our finite allotment of 24 hours a day.

Go! Go! Go! Hurry. Hurry.

A 1999 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project said that mothers with school-age children average more than five car trips a day. We give first-graders day schedulers to keep up with piano, French, soccer and tae kwon do lessons. Even when we are home, we're often too fried to do anything but watch TV. Or we've taken work home because we spent our workday in meetings, committees or answering e-mail, with no concentrated time to think.

"We have this mentality of rushing, which means nobody enjoys their lives because you're always thinking about what you have to do next," said Cecile Andrews, of Seattle, a longtime advocate of the voluntary-simplicity movement that's behind Take Back Your Time Day. "A society where people are not talking over the back fence is also a society where people don't vote, and this is a direct relationship to no time."

The topic is real enough that a bipartisan alliance including Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., won uncontested approval to name October "National Work and Family Month." Though Hatch wants labor rules eased and Kennedy wants them tightened, they agree that reducing the conflict between work and family life needs to be a national priority.

"People are tired. They're burned out," said Jeanne-Marie Maher, a Seattle-area doctor who recently stepped away from the profession that she loved after growing frustrated by the factory format of hurrying patients through. Now she's working as a life and health coach — starting with Katie Bill.

"The number of people I've seen in the last several years who had to take time off for stress is much higher than I ever remember seeing," said Maher. "They want their lives back, and they want time with family and friends."

It may not be easy

One goal of Take Back Your Time Day is simply to raise consciousness, the way Earth Day brought a national focus on the environment. But there are many barriers.

Earth Day had a budget of $185,000 the first year and dramatic evidence of environmental damage, which led to passage of major environmental legislation within three years.

A river burning from pollution is easier to envision than what is now being dubbed "time poverty." And while Time Day has the Internet as a tool, its budget, so far, is only $6,000.

John de Graaf, an independent documentary producer who works with Seattle's KCTS Television, edited the movement's recently published handbook, "Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America." He gets lots of nods when he talks about the big price we're paying with our health, families and community "for the sake of the economy." But he finds that people have little faith that they even have the right to try to change it.

"They say, 'It's part of the American culture. Businesses will never go for it.' People are far more resigned about the prospect of doing anything about it than they were about the environment."

Indeed, some critics say this is no time to think about cutting back on consumption or hours. If it's less expensive to work employees longer than it is to pay benefits for new employees, then that's how it must be. Too many companies are barely surviving as it is.

Cutting back is not an option for many workers, either. Some are working two jobs, often with no benefits, and still not making ends meet.

Amber Balch, governmental affairs director for the Association of Washington Business, says the polls she sees show that workers' biggest concern in this economy is not hours worked, but having a job and benefits. They want security that the job will be there tomorrow.

People who compare the U.S. to more socialized countries forget about the high cost companies here pay for benefits and for protecting themselves from litigation, she said.

But studies show the damage of burnout is mounting. U.S. workers are the most productive in the world, according to a new study released by the United Nations' labor agency, the International Labor Organization (ILO). But that's because American workers put in more hours; other countries are more productive per hour.

Some 80 percent of U.S. men and 62 percent of women work more than 40 hours a week, according to the ILO. Yet two-thirds of employees surveyed for the Center for a New American Dream said they want to work fewer hours and would be willing to trade pay to do it.

"We have accumulated enough evidence to prove that work overload doesn't benefit anyone," said Sharon Lobel, professor of management at the Albers School of Business & Economics at Seattle University.

Business leaders, she said, need to help employees find ways to take the load off — even through small changes, such as prorating benefits for employees who want to work less than full time.

At Xerox Corp., MIT researchers asked a group of engineers what aspects of their normal work prevented them from having enough free time outside of work. As a result, the company instituted a two-hour block of uninterrupted time in the mornings — and the engineers had more time at home and their first on-time product launch.

"When businesses encourage people to have a life, not just a job," Lobel said, "we pay back our employer with commitment, innovation and solid performance."

What can be done

Take Back Your Time Day is a national initiative of the voluntary-simplicity movement's Simplicity Forum, and a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University.

"The thing we hear over and over again is time," said Andrews, who has done things such as rent out two-thirds of her house to cut her expenses, thus buying herself free time, but is still surrounded by hectic professionals who set the pace. "How did the most powerful country in the world lose control of its time?"

We don't have time to enjoy what we have, say Take Back Your Time organizers, who find ready listeners among religious leaders. The notion of a day of rest and reflection goes back thousands of years in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but now we don't have time for spiritual lives.

How did this happen? For one thing, technology — the very thing that was supposed to replace overwork with a new problem: what to do with so much leisure time.

Fifteen years ago, we were promised that our computers would become as easy to use as telephones. Instead, phones became as complicated as computers.

If we strip away the computer, the television and our many telephones for periods of quiet time, we can see how they've contributed to our minds becoming agitated, and how hard it is to slow down, says David Levy, a University of Washington professor in the Information School.

"Our outside is incredibly busy, and our inside is incredibly busy, too," says Levy, who is coordinating Time Day events on campus.

Initially, organizers of Take Back Your Time Day hoped that many Americans would take the day off work to discuss the possibilities of changing our culture and our lives, but most off-campus events now will be held at lunch hours or off hours.

"We realized that was a pipe dream in this economic climate where people are frightened," said de Graaf, the documentary producer.

Changes can come at a policy level or they can be smaller, personal changes. Go to the park on your lunch hour? Meditate? Take a pay cut and work fewer hours?

"It connects to almost everything," Andrews said.

The physical toll

Becoming overburdened is a gradual process. Martin Ringhofer, who has been in purchasing at Boeing for 25 years, likens it to watching your kids grow.

"I didn't realize it at the time, but the best way to describe it was just hectic, extremely high pressure," says Ringhofer.

Unplanned meetings at lunchtime or what was supposed to be the end of his day. Dozens of daily e-mails that required action. The pressure of overburdened co-workers who depended on one another.

Late one week in October 2002, Ringhofer joked with his co-workers that if things didn't ease up, one of them was going to end up in the intensive care unit. That Monday, it was Ringhofer, who learned he'd had three "silent" heart attacks and will likely need a heart transplant.

He's back at work in a position that still uses his expertise but with much less pressure. Now he enjoys his work again but has to be ever watchful of the strain.

He gets up early to eat a balanced meal and gets on the road early enough that he handles the traffic without adding stress. No "brown bag" lunch meetings for him. He walks instead. "When you take time for the important things, you feel better," said Ringhofer.

That's also the approach that Katie Bill has taken. For nearly a decade, she worked for a major hotel chain, putting in 12- to 14-hour shifts, up to six days a week.

When her two children were born, she went to beauty school to change her profession and then "tag teamed" with her husband, going to work soon after he got home.

She felt she was still missing her life, so she changed again, starting her own salon at home. But she still couldn't set boundaries and soon found herself with clients from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

She told her family, "Hurry up, let's have dinner. Let's go. Let's go."

Finally, she volunteered to be the pilot project for a life coach, who just happened to be her former physician, Jeanne-Marie Maher, who looked at Bill's schedule and asked:

"How are you even doing this?" Maher worked with Bill to help her focus on what she wanted in life, giving her an idea of what she was tolerating instead of changing.

Out went the desk with all the cubbyholes.

In came a set schedule, which includes working every other Saturday instead of every evening for clients who work days. Bill says her car "is still a flipping train wreck," but she sees herself as halfway through the change process, which includes making sure she does something fun every day.

"Life is too short," she says. "I don't have the patience for it to be just OK."

She could put her kids on the bus and use her time even more efficiently, but she won't. The girls are too young, she begins in her own defense. Or maybe she's just a control freak.

But after a pause, the truth comes with conviction: She wants to spend as much time with her kids as she can.

"This is my time."

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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