Are 'Meternity' leaves for non-parents a good idea?

The U.S. ranks last on this important issue
The U.S. ranks last on this important issue

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Story highlights

  • Brigid Schulte: New parents aren't the only ones who need time for something other than work in their lives
  • America, it's time to work shorter, more focused hours, she says

Brigid Schulte is the director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has the Time." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)When I think back on the happiest times of my life, I immediately think of my two periods of maternity leave after my children were born. And it's not just because of the sheer joy of being with my babies.

It's also because after working flat out and full steam as a daily newspaper reporter for more than a decade, in an era of shrinking staff and expanding appetite for ever more "content," my leave -- partly paid, mostly unpaid -- at least got me out of the office.
    Yes, I was physically exhausted, but maternity leave was such a welcome respite from the grinding pace of work. After years of willingly working evenings, weekends and sometimes pulling all-nighters, I was just really, really tired.
    So let's get two things straight: Meghann Foye, author of the new novel, "Meternity," about a woman who fakes a pregnancy just to get a break from work, is absolutely wrong when she calls maternity leave a blissful time for "self-reflection" -- an ill-advised claim that has set the Internet on furious fire. (I get it. Maternity leave is not a vacation. On "productive" days with my newborns, I may have managed to clip their fingernails. Most days evaporated in a sleep-deprived haze.)
    Brigid Schulte
    But Foye is absolutely right that new parents aren't the only ones who need time for something other than work in their lives. And we shouldn't let the backlash against this book (Foye has already canceled media and promotional appearances) obscure the critical questions about our work cultures, structures and policies that it raises. Americans -- whether they have children are not -- are fried. Indeed, beneath the furor over Foye's way of making this point lies the difficult truth that a growing body of research has been showing us for years: The American way of work isn't working -- for anyone.
    Professional workers in the United States work among the longest hours of any advanced economy. Many hourly workers can't get enough hours at one job to get by, so they attempt to juggle two or three jobs. Alone among advanced economies, we, along with Nepal, Suriname and Guyana, have no national vacation policy. And, to meet the expectations of our workaholic culture, those whose employers do offer paid vacation don't take it all (or take work along), virtually gifting their earned time off back to the job.
    In a 2015 study by Staples Advantage and WorkPlace Trends, more than half the 2,500 workers surveyed reported feeling burned out by their jobs. Half reported eating lunch at their desks, and feeling that they could never take a break. More than three-fourths said they sometimes worked nights and weekends from home.
    The question is what to do about it. And the answer is to change the way we work. According to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin's research, restructuring jobs to ensure more flexibility in when, where and how work gets done could do more than improve work-life balance. If employers no longer have incentive to reward what Anne-Marie Slaughter has called "time macho" and other researchers unrealistic "hero hours" in their employees, Goldin argues, the gender pay gap "would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether."
    Making these changes won't be easy -- there is no paid family leave, no national infrastructure for high quality, affordable, accessible child and elder care. And our labor laws, too, are outdated and out of sync with the reality of our lives. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, employers have to pay overtime only to hourly workers who put in more than 40 hours a week, even though many would kill to get at least 30. Salaried workers have no such protection from overwork.
    But we can do it, by transforming our policies and our culture. Technology allows workers enormous freedom to organize work -- smart phone apps like Shift Worker enable hourly workers to remotely swap shifts. And for knowledge workers, secure, encrypted technology means they can work virtually anywhere, anytime. But unless we change our work cultures to value performance and productivity more than face time as a sign of commitment and dedication, technology won't make work more flexible -- it will just keep us working everywhere, all the time.
    Yet here's something that sounds sacrilegious: Working shorter hours may actually make work better. In international comparisons of hourly productivity, countries with shorter work hours, like Norway, often rank ahead of the United States, with France, Denmark and others not far behind.
    And though we Americans think that these long work hours are required to get the job done, research proves otherwise. Stanford economist John Pencavel has shown a "productivity cliff," that the longer we work over 40 hours, the steeper the drop in productivity.
    Economists and neuroscientists are showing us we can't effectively innovate, be creative or be open to fresh insights when we're crispy around the edges.
    So America, it's time to work shorter, more focused hours. Start with the easy stuff: better systems. Knowledge workers sometimes work long hours because they're interrupted every three minutes during the day and can't get the big stuff done. So set up a system for uninterrupted quiet time every day. Take breaks every 90 minutes. Go for a walk. Eat lunch with someone. That can improve the odds of having a breakthrough idea.
    Then, tackle the bigger, revolutionary changes and back them up with policy. Rather than judge worker performance by hours, which is easy, do the hard work of figuring out what the mission of the work is and the right metrics to gauge results.
    Take advantage of technology. Make flexibility the default for every worker, rather than the rare and stigmatized exception for new parents. Research by Nicholas Bloom, another Stanford economist, has found that workers given flexible schedules are more productive and happier -- and they save companies money. For hourly workers, give them cross-training and predictable schedules with stable hours at a living wage. Support a national paid family leave program, vacation policy and better infrastructure for child and elder care, and create the cultures that support workers actually using them.
    And, instead of "meternity" leaves to refresh, reset and have real time for self-reflection, follow the lead of companies who actually give workers sabbaticals, like Nike, Adobe, the Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, PwC, General Mills, Klimpton Hotels, REI, The Cheesecake Factory, QuickTrip and others.
    The point is, if we change the way we work -- to both make work better and to give people time for their lives -- perhaps no one would ever get so worn out and sucked dry that they would have to yearn for a Meternity Leave.