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Commentary: Your never-ending workday

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: I once knew radio exec who started work at 2:30 a.m.
  • He says Americans now accept that they are always on call for work
  • Greene: In tough economy, workers are reluctant to draw boundaries
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book, "Late Edition: A Love Story," will be published next month.

Bob Greene recalls a radio exec who was ahead of his time by working an almost endless day.

Bob Greene recalls a radio exec who was ahead of his time by working an almost endless day.

(CNN) -- I think perhaps the oddest person I have ever known was a man by the name of Robert Hyland.

But the truly odd thing is that we all seem to have turned into him.

Hyland was the vice president and general manager of KMOX radio, the 50,000-watt powerhouse in St. Louis, Missouri.

He came to work every day at 2:30.

In the morning.

That's right: Hyland would show up at his office at 2:30 a.m. each day. He would then work straight through until 5 p.m.

He didn't do this once in a while; he did it each and every day. He didn't do it to set an example for his employees.

He did it because he couldn't seem to stop working.

"I'm not one of those people who need sleep to be refreshed," Hyland told me once. "I'll go to bed between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., and I'll wake up at 1:30 a.m. I have an alarm clock, but I never set it. I wake up automatically. I shower and shave, and I'm at the office by 2:30."

I asked him if this schedule made any sense at all.

"It's a good time to get a lot of work done," he told me. "The phone isn't ringing, and there are no distractions. I have a pile of paperwork on my desk, and I go through it."

At 9 a.m., he said -- after he had been at work for 6½ hours -- the other people at the office would show up. And he would keep going.

Hyland may have seemed eccentric -- he readily understood that perception; he said to me: "I think what you're thinking is that you're talking to a nut" -- but if he had lived a little longer (he died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 71), he would have witnessed something that might have astonished even him:

The rest of the world joined him in his obsession.

Hyland died just before the era in which everyone began using cell phones and staring at home computer screens. Society might never have been ready to do what he did -- come to the office in the middle of the night and routinely work 14½ hour days -- had the technology revolution not come along.

But come along it did -- and with it came the erasure of all the boundaries that at one time separated the workday from leisure time.

E-mails and text messages and BlackBerrys and all their digital cousins may have given us the illusion of freedom -- we tell ourselves that we are unfettered by traditional offices, that we can go anywhere we please -- yet in the end they have created a nation of Robert Hylands. We're never off the clock; that cell phone may ring at dinnertime, that allegedly urgent e-mail may arrive at 11 p.m., that instant message from the regional manager may pop onto the screen when we're on vacation with our families.

And what do we do?

If your answer is, "We ignore them," good for you. But the truth is, mostly we don't ignore them -- mostly we snap to attention.

Ask yourself this: What do you think would happen to an employee who received an e-mail at home from his boss at 8 o'clock on a Tuesday night, and who responded to the e-mail by writing back:

"I'm sorry, but I'm only available for work-related e-mails during office hours. If you'd like to communicate with me about this matter, please feel free to do so tomorrow after 9 a.m."

That might be the rational answer. But how many people -- especially in this economy, and in this job market -- do you think would dare to do that?

And it's not just when we're working for our bosses -- it's when we're purportedly doing things for ourselves. Try to picture your father's or grandfather's reaction if in, say, 1958, he had been trying to make an airplane reservation and he had been told by the airline:

"We'd like you to purchase a computer and set it up inside your house. You pay for it; you also pay for the electricity to run it. Now, we'd like you to buy a printing machine -- you pay for that, and you pay for the ink inside it, and you pay for the paper that feeds into it. Now, we'd like you to use the computer you've paid for to do the work of reservation agents, so we don't have to hire as many of them. Got it? Now, use that computer, make your own reservations, and print out your own ticket. On your own time."

Had your dad or granddad been told that, half a century ago, he might have thought he was having a nightmare. But we're grateful for it; we tell ourselves this is progress. If we log on at the moment the seat-selection process opens up, and we manage, by playing airline-roulette on our keyboard, to get ourselves an aisle seat, we feel triumphant. We barely stop to consider that we're working for the very airline company to which we're paying our money.

Robert Hyland said he would feel funny not working all those hours -- he even did it on Saturdays; on the sixth workday of his week he would come in, as usual, at 2:30 a.m.

"I just don't think that most people have the commitment to their jobs that I do," he told me.

If only he had lived to see 2009. He would have been just a face in the crowd -- just another American to whom the notion of quitting time has lost all meaning.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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