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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Who knows where the time goes?

November 5, 2009
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“I have no thought of time. For who knows where the time goes? — Sandy Denny, singer/songwriter of the British folk-rockers, Fairport Convention

Once upon a time there was a man who asked himself, ‘Where have all the days and nights of my life gone?’” begins William Maxwell’s short story, “All the Days and Nights.” One afternoon, the man sets out to find all that he seems to have lost, not telling a soul. A night passes, days, weeks, months. A year to the day he disappeared he walks back into his home. “I’m too tired to talk about it,” he tells his wife. That night in his sleep he says aloud, “They’re all there. Each day is connected to the one before and the one that comes after, like bars of music.” The next morning, she cannot make him realize he had ever been away.

So it goes with time. Maybe it is all an illusion. Slippery and elusive, we never seem to be able to get enough of it. In 2008, the Families and Work Institute surveyed more than 2,000 employees nationwide: 75 percent said they don’t have enough time for their children; 61 percent didn’t have enough time for their partner or spouse; and 59 percent didn’t have enough time for themselves. Employees are experiencing a “time famine,” reported the Families and Work Institute.

Where’d the time go?

Extended hours

So are our readers. In September we conducted, for the 26th consecutive year, ISHN’s “State of the EHS Nation White Paper” survey. In 2010, almost half (49 percent) of you expect your work hours to increase. Only seven percent foresee your hours decreasing.

Who are you fortunate few, anyway?

Since 17 percent of respondents are age 60+, maybe those seven percent are retiring next year. Or since nearly a third of respondents say they’ll be more worried about job security next year, perhaps some foresee the axeman cometh.

With workloads piling higher, it goes hand-in-hand that job distress will intensify. Almost six in ten (59 percent) expect to be even more stressed out in 2010. Six percent see less distress in their days ahead. They must be the same ones whose work hours will decline.

Working longer and harder squeezes free time out of life’s equation, distressing us more. This perverse logic not only “seriously undermines the health and well-being” of employees, says the Families and Work Institute, but has a number of threatening safety ramifications.

Time-wasting activities

Think about it. You, and/or your employees, supervisors, and managers, all sense “not having enough time.” One practical outcome: employees seek shortcuts. Supervisors cut back on safety talks and training. Managers shove safety issues into Stephen R. Covey’s “Not Important” and “Not Urgent” box in his Time Management Matrix, along with other busy work and pleasant but time-wasting activities.

Speaking of “not important” and “not urgent,” fully one in three White Paper respondents predict decreasing EHS resource support — budget and staffing — in 2010. Only 11 percent see support increasing. For the rest, it will remain unchanged.

In the past 12 months, only one in four White Paper respondents reported management leadership support for safety and health increased; only 18 percent saw an increase in supervisor support, and 17 percent said employee engagement in safety and health increased.

One in four reported employee involvement declining; one in five saw supervisor support on the wane last year, and 18 percent said management leadership for safety and health took a dip.

To be sure, the “time famine” isn’t the only factor here. Bedeviling many of you more directly is the “dollar drought.” More than half of all White Paper respondents (52 percent) work in companies where sales and profits dropped in the past year. About one in five (22 percent) managed to benefit from a better bottom line.

Individuals at risk

Time pressures will test any organization’s cultural values for safety and health. The risk to individual safety and health, on and off the job, is equally problematic. An employee who feels she or he doesn’t have enough time for their kids is likely a distracted employee. You see them on the road everywhere at rush hour, morning and night, barking instructions into their cells, tracking down their kids and spouses, lining up logistics, getting the kids from here to there, from practice to rehearsal. Schedules, reminders, to-do lists race through their minds.

Of course this scattershot lack of focus and need to multi-task creates hazards on the road, at home, and in the workplace.

With less time, we try to get from point A (say work) to point B (home) faster, perhaps with the help of some aggressive driving. Or, point A might be your workstation and point B anything — lunch, a meeting, the parking lot, the warehouse, an errand. We’re experts nowadays in the art of the quick dash. Darting in and out. And in a flash the dash can become a crash.

Running on empty

It’s draining, isn’t it? Racing to beat the school bus home. Trying to remember who’s “on” for picking up or dropping off the kids. Making next day’s lunches and dinner at eleven at night. It’s fatiguing especially when you don’t have downtime for yourself. You and/or your employees might suffer from fatigue-induced “presenteeism” — you’re on the job but you’re not on your game, or on time, or on the same page as co-workers.

It can be depressing not having enough time for your children, your mate, and yourself. A large proportion of the workforce shows signs of clinical depression, according to the Families and Work Institute report. More than a quarter (27 percent) of employees experienced sleep problems that affected their job performance in the last month, according to the study. Today, mental health ills are still seriously stigmatized in the workplace (“He’s unstable, he’s not reliable”). And so they represent a silent, unspoken, untreated risk in far too many cases.

Safety and health professionals, though, soldier on. You’re a hardy, resilient breed. In our White Paper survey, only 12 percent of you see your personal job satisfaction taking a dive next year. Almost one in three expect it to improve, despite longer hours and more job distress. For the rest, job satisfaction will remain status quo.

Many a pro has a philosophical side, dealing daily with the attitudes, behaviors and beliefs of unpredictable humans. Most pros, according to our survey, are in their 40s and 50s. That’s plenty of time to have acquired worldly wisdom (aka cynicism or jadedness). Maybe they’ve learned to accept today’s whirlwind world with equanimity. Or maybe they’re simply too busy to think about it.

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