In America, Too Much 'All Work, No Play'?
JACKI LYDEN, Host:
But first, since this is Labor Day, we wanted to focus on the way Americans work. Hopefully, you've found some time to relax and be with your loved ones during the long holiday weekend.
As most of you know, finding down time seems to just get harder all the time. The blackberries buzz, the kids, they might wail, but the to-do list keeps piling up, so have you ever felt like this about your work life?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OFFICE SPACE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) So I was sitting in my cubicle today and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.
MAN: (as Character) What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?
MAN: (as Character) Yeah.
MAN: (as Character) Wow, that's messed up.
LYDEN: That's from "Office Space," the 1999 comedy about working in a dead-end job. Joking aside, finding that work/life balance is still something that an awful lot of us find elusive.
However, today, we found a few people who have been able to find a way, at least most of the time. And we're going to introduce them to you now.
Joining us to talk about balancing work and life is Bertice Berry. She's a sociologist, lecturer and author. She's also a single mother to five adopted children. Hello, Bertice.
BERTICE BERRY: Hello.
LYDEN: We also have Chris Licht. He's the vice president of programming at CBS News and he spent years focusing on his intense career until a cerebral hemorrhage helped put things into perspective. He's the author of "What I Learned When I Almost Died. How a maniac TV producer put down his BlackBerry and started to live his life."
Welcome, Chris Licht.
CHRIS LICHT: Great to be here.
LYDEN: And also with us is Arnoldo Borja. He's a community organizer for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Northern Virginia. Thanks for coming into the studio, Arnoldo.
ARNOLDO BORJA: Thanks for inviting me.
LYDEN: So, labor. You know, thinking about it, here in the U.S., despite all our problems, one of the 33 richest countries and yet the U.S. is the only one in that group of countries without legally required paid vacation for workers. And this is according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Bertice Berry in Savannah, Georgia, I want to start with you. As a sociologist, what do you think is the effect of an all work, no play culture? A place that, you know, people like to remind each other how busy they are and how much they work.
BERRY: Yeah. The result is the stress that you experience on a daily basis and the stress that, you know, in health care, we're finding that people are sicker than they've ever been. We know it's associated with stress.
And the other thing is that we keep doing the thing to do the thing, to do the thing, to do the thing to get to this point of success that nobody knows how to define or what it is. We say our family is most important and yet, you know, we're back in the place. The last thing we touch at night is the BlackBerry, the handheld device, the laptop. It's not the face of a loved one or a child.
LYDEN: I was really surprised to read that the average American just takes nine days of vacation a year.
BERRY: Yeah. And we don't rest. In other countries and other cultures, there's more maternity leave for the man and the woman. There's a time in the day to take a break, to take a nap, but we don't and we say, you know, that we are, you know, blessed and highly favored and we're wonderful and everything is well, but we're stressed.
LYDEN: Speaking of other cultures, Arnoldo Borja, you came to this country from Mexico about 20 years ago with the purpose of finding work. And today, you help day laborers, but you also help a lot of employed people with minimum wage jobs. Is vacation or relaxation something that people who have minimum wage jobs think about, expect?
BORJA: Well, we are thinking, then, a vacation is going to the laundry or going to buy the groceries for the week. But real vacation, like to go out, to go to the beach, is not even an option because we are thinking about tomorrow. We are thinking that we cannot lose even a day.
LYDEN: Is that because, Arnoldo Borja, people are worried they're going to lose the job if they don't work a day or are they worried that they will lose the money?
BORJA: Both. But even where there's not any contract for secure days is going to come and employ me, we don't know when or who, but we are - be there waiting and lose even a day waiting, it's like we are losing something.
LYDEN: Chris Licht, before your medical incident, you had a job with such incredible intensity as the executive producer of Morning Joe on MSNBC. Describe a little bit what that was like for us, would you, please?
LICHT: It was a 24/7 job in every sense of the word. If you weren't thinking about what was done today, you were worrying about, what about tomorrow? And if it wasn't worrying about the show, it was concerns with the talent. So it was truly even when you were not at work, you were at work.
LYDEN: But you didn't mind that at the time. I mean, that was sort of part of it, wasn't it?
LICHT: Yeah. You know, and I think I got a little caught up in that where it was a lot of fun, but it was very intense. It was hard, but there was a good payoff, a good reward as far as the product we were putting on the air. What I didn't really appreciate is the people around me who weren't living exactly my world, but were force to cope with the side effects of it.
LYDEN: And you describe in your book having this brain hemorrhage on an ordinary work day. You happened to be in Washington, not New York that day. Could you just briefly tell us what happened?
LICHT: We got done with taping Morning Joe. I got into a car and suddenly had the worst pain I've ever experienced in my head and knew something was really, really wrong and called my parents, who are both in the medical field, and they told me to go to the hospital. And when I got there, I was originally diagnosed as having a stress migraine, which actually made sense.
So I was getting ready, sort of, to leave and then another doctor came in and said, let's just do a CT scan to be sure. And they found level three out of four bleeding on my brain and I had suffered a pretty significant brain hemorrhage.
LYDEN: Chris, I want to come back to you and talk more about the relationship between stress and work, which I think at whatever level of the spectrum we are, we can relate to.
Bertice Berry, you made a decision to stop taking care of everyone except yourself and since then, you have lost a great deal of weight. You've lost 150 pounds.
As a health issue, Chris has just mentioned stress.
LYDEN: How did that work?
BERRY: Well, it was impacting me. I've been a strict vegetarian for 38 years, so you know, I knew it wasn't what I was eating. I knew it wasn't whether or not I was moving. I knew it was a result of stress and so I created a program - and I've written about it - where you just start living more mindful of yourself, taking care of yourself.
I do a great job of, you know, working in community, raising my kids, working the work. You know, I often say to people, if everything is going great at work and it's not at home and then when it's going great at home and then it's not at work, that's the balance that you get.
Well, then there's another factor and that's the individual factor and we don't take care of ourselves. As Chris was explaining, you know, he's doing all this work and he's putting out a great product and something he can be very, very proud of. What a legacy, but the legacy of his own life is not cared for.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're talking about how hard it is to find the balance between your work and your life.
Our guests are sociologist, lecturer and author, Bertice Berry and the vice president of programming at CBS News, Chris Licht. He also has a new book out. And community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Northern Virginia, Arnoldo Borja.
Arnoldo, I understand that stress can come in any shape. Tell me a little bit about the stresses that you see some of the people you work with, people who hold low income jobs have.
BORJA: Well, it's like to be living a life that doesn't belong to us. For example, as the migrants who came here with a lot of illusions and suddenly they see that there's no such thing.
LYDEN: What are some of those illusions?
BORJA: Well, to save money, to build a house. And suddenly, we are seeing not only that we are not making the money, but we are losing our families because you're thinking, well, two years already passed. I want to wait here another two and another two and it's getting worse, but we don't want to be seen as failures.
LYDEN: How much vacation have you taken off in the last year?
BORJA: I took, like, three weeks, but it was not a real vacation. I went to visit another places relating to my work and to visit this migrant refuge in the south of Mexico and talked to the people. Where are they going to be seen when they got here? And this is another to know more about life and just not to (unintelligible) the expectation, but that people know what they are going to find out.
LYDEN: You know, Chris, it's interesting listening to Arnoldo. It seems as if our ability to stick it out is a common theme at any level of the job spectrum because you felt the same way. You really wanted to get out of that hospital after your brain hemorrhage and get back into the control room at Morning Joe.
LICHT: Yeah. It's very interesting just listening to that. I never took vacation and I certainly could on paper, but I never - before the incident, didn't really have the confidence in myself to be away from the control room.
LYDEN: Even though you were at the top of the game, it was who is more macho? You don't want to take a holiday?
LICHT: You know, you just felt like you were letting somebody down and that you didn't want to give up your piece of the pie. And when I was in the hospital, really, I wanted to get back to normal. I was dying to get back into the control room and I ended up going back to work too soon. I didn't sort of realize that at the time, obviously, but once I reflected on it and sort of had a reset of what was important, I realized that I had really rushed to get back. And for what reason, you know?
LYDEN: Bertice, how can we change this? I'm looking at something that says that about 75 percent of all Americans believe that - and this is according to a survey - believe that accessing their computers or laptops, their BlackBerries, is necessary while they're on a break.
BERRY: I mean, it's exactly what Chris was just talking about. You feel as if, if I don't do it, then I'm going to be the one that's letting the team down and I can't afford to do that, especially in the economy. If they're letting people go, I'll be the one that's let go, so I need to do this right away.
And I think that what we should do is be realistic, as we've been hearing. Be true to ourselves and be true to each other. We need to sit down and have meetings and say, whose best trait is this and who does this better? So that we stop creating this environment where everybody's got to answer every email, everybody's got to be copied on everything and everybody feels that they have to respond right away.
You know, there is no midnight emergency to get a signed contract back in. What we even define as an emergency is not real and the reality of it is then you feel guilty for doing what your life requires.
I mean, the same situation as Chris, I had gall bladder removal and my only question was, what's the recovery time? I've got to get back up. No. We have to learn, and I think the best way to do it is to shut things off at a certain hour, to take moments in the day to say this is my 10 minutes of breathing. Get up and walk around. You've got to walk. Look through your daily paper and see what lecture or museum opening or something. Do things.
You don't have to schedule three week vacations. Take a 40-minute break somewhere to go do something you wouldn't normally do to breathe.
LYDEN: That's all good advice, Bertice.
Chris, the title of your book, "What I Learned When I Almost Died." What did you learn? How did you change things? I know you've changed jobs.
LICHT: I've changed jobs, but I've learned to declutter my brain, I think is the best way to put it. And when you sort of are in a situation where you may die, anything that doesn't matter at that moment doesn't belong in your brain.
Just from a BlackBerry standpoint, I work in a job where, sometimes, you do need to reply to things right away and people will - did you really put down your BlackBerry? No. It's a metaphor, but what I've done is I've turned it to phone only and people know that, if they need an answer right away, call me.
That it's almost like, you know, a lot of people who probably are listening to this right now are in a car and hopefully they're not texting because you know what? It's just not that important. So use that kind of guideline. Put it on phone only so it doesn't vibrate. Look at it every couple of hours. That's what I do and it's hugely freeing.
LYDEN: You said one of the things in this book is you learn not to counterpunch and you also say that there will always be television networks and jobs in TV, perhaps less than there were, but there will only be one you.
LICHT: Right. And if you can embrace that and you have focused on what's important, that will carry you through to the next job.
LYDEN: Arnoldo, what do you tell people who maybe have less ability to take that deep breath or that 40 minutes off that Bertice mentioned, who do have to work by the clock? Do you have some advice for them?
BORJA: Well, we know that this kind of crisis drives people crazy and the more crazy we are, the less chances to think clearly we have. And what I do is like - we have choices and we have to be like the more choices we have, the more abilities we have not to get into this kind of stress.
And the advice that I have to the people is we had a family and it's a huge choice and we have to keep in mind that whatever choice we do, we have to maintain in our thinking our family. And not to see the family for two or three years is a long time and we have to consider to go back with them.
LYDEN: But if a worker gets sick, the worker can't do the job and can't - in other words, if you get sick - and I think Chris found this out - and you really can't take care of anybody.
BORJA: That's right. It's another (unintelligible) we are sick and go back to the family and place to get someone healthy when they left. Now they are getting someone back with less money than he had when he left and now sick. And that's the reason that a lot of people have stopped thinking about to go back.
LYDEN: Bertice maybe - you have five children. Maybe we need to say your family's got to be as important as work in this country.
BERRY: Family's got to be as important as work and you have to be as important to yourself. You know, we women tend to get lost in the family and the work. Men get lost in both, as well, but I think there's a different level of it for women. At least, that's what I'm hearing.
LYDEN: you're here and you can't do anything.
LYDEN: Bertice Berry is sociologist, lecturer and author and her most recent book is "A Year to Wellness." She joined us from Savannah, Georgia. Thank you so much.
BERRY: Thank you.
LYDEN: And Chris Licht is the vice president of programming at CBS News and the author of "What I Learned When I Almost Died: How a Maniac TV Producer Put Down His BlackBerry and Started to Live His Life." Long title. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.
LICHT: My pleasure.
LYDEN: And Arnoldo Borja, a community organizer for Legal Aid Justice Center in Northern Virginia. And he joined me here in our D.C. studio.
Thank you all.
BERRY: Thank you.
BORJA: Thank you. Thank you very much.
LYDEN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.