It’s Not the Hours We Work, but the Energy We Put Into Them

I was in the middle of writing a column on Thursday about workaholism and overwork when Jeb Bush serendipitously appeared to set me straight. Americans don’t work too much or too compulsively, he told The New Hampshire Union Leader. Rather, they don’t work enough.

“People need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families,” Mr. Bush said during an interview with the paper’s editorial board.

Mr. Bush’s statement brought back memories of the time in 2005 when his brother, President George W. Bush, addressed a divorced mother of three at a town hall forum in Nebraska. “You work three jobs,” he said to her. “Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean that is fantastic that you’re doing that. Get any sleep?”

Jeb Bush apparently views himself as a model for working longer hours and gaining more income for his family, especially in the years since he left office as governor of Florida in 2007.

“I worked constantly and traveled the globe for my clients,” he has said. “I went on 89 trips to 29 different countries. Over these years, my income increased thanks to hard work and experience.”

Privilege creates its blind spots. As Barry Switzer, a former football coach at the University of Oklahoma, once put it, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

Over the last eight years, Mr. Bush was paid $27 million from giving speeches, serving on corporate boards and consulting for two banks at a combined salary of $2 million a year. Mr. Bush made $9.95 million from speeches alone during that period.

Mr. Bush’s remarks about urging people to work harder prompted instant criticism from at least one major rival. “Anyone who believes Americans aren’t working hard enough hasn’t met enough workers,” Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Twitter.

What is undeniable is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband, Bill, are even harder workers than Jeb Bush.

In 2014 alone, Mrs. Clinton delivered 51 paid speeches, netting more than $12 million. Mr. Clinton gave 53 talks last year, adding $13.5 million of income for the family. Between 2001 and 2013, Mr. Clinton gave 542 speeches around the world — more than half in foreign countries — and earned a staggering $104.9 million for his efforts.

As criticism of Mr. Bush’s remarks spread on Thursday, his campaign scrambled to provide further context. It’s not that all workers need to put in more hours, he responded on Twitter to Mrs. Clinton, but rather that those working part time or unable to find work need to work longer hours. (Or, more accurately, any hours at all.)

To the vast majority of low-paid workers, putting in long hours often creates as many problems as it solves. If you are being paid $8 to $10 an hour, you still most likely will not be able to afford high-quality child care, for example, and you are also less likely to get sufficient sleep or to take care of your other basic needs.

It’s also a fallacy that individuals spending more hours at work translates into a more robust economy.

Today it is frequently the 1 percent who work the longest hours. The opportunities to accumulate ever more wealth induce them — often compulsively — to stay connected around the clock and around the globe. Many low-skill workers, though, struggle to work enough hours to be able to pay their bills. No one is well served by working longer and longer hours.

When Mr. Bush brags about how hard he is working, it’s not because he needs more money but perhaps partly because he feels he can’t afford not to work hard, given how generously he is paid for his time. The same is most likely true for the Clintons, and even more so for the world’s billionaires.

The irony, of course, is that the more time they spend building their fortunes, the less time they have to enjoy them or to do much of anything but work.

Nor is there persuasive evidence that working more hours translates into higher quality work, or even greater productivity, because it is so often privileged above sleep, vacation and most everything else. Overwork ultimately produces diminishing returns for workers at any level.

During the last 12 hours, I had my own vivid experience of the costs of trying to work more hours. After reading Mr. Bush’s words on Thursday night, I threw out the column I was writing about workaholism. Instead, I woke up early Friday morning to start over on this column.

After a couple of hours of writing, I noticed that my brain was slowly shutting down from lack of sleep, and I felt as if I was rowing toward my destination through a sea of molasses.

My deadline loomed, but I decided to stop working and take a 30-minute nap. When I awoke, I felt refreshed and able to think far more clearly and efficiently.

We create the highest value not by how many hours we work but by how much energy we are capable of bringing to whatever hours we work. We create the most value as human beings when we find a dynamic balance between work and rest.

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