Long work hours cut into family life

The news that the Dow Jones industrial average is at record highs is perplexing, given that the companies doing so well are apparently not creating jobs - or, at any rate, not creating jobs here. The U.S. unemployment rate remains stubbornly stuck just below 8 percent, and is 7.1 percent on Long Island.

Normally, you'd think that more workers would be required to fuel companies' growth. Instead, a lot of employers are "doing more with less" - a phrase for our time. In many jobs, technological advances allow people to produce more in the same amount of time, so fewer people are needed.

But another factor is that those fortunate enough to have jobs are working longer hours. Everyone seems to have a story about someone who's taken over the jobs of three people, or is answering work emails from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. In Europe, the average employee works 1,625 hours annually; in the United States, it's 1,797.

All this work can take a toll on family life. Most parents have outside employment; in just a quarter of American homes are children cared for by a stay-home parent. We should be asking, what portion of time should paid work justly demand, and what portion is necessary for family and community well-being?

A lower quality of life for families can have vast repercussions - for crime, unwanted pregnancy, poverty rates, domestic violence, education levels. Ultimately, our economy will suffer if family life does.

There's growing evidence that the psychological, physical and economic life of the family is eroding. Of 3,000 adults interviewed for the American Psychological Association's "Stress in America" survey in 2010, 75 percent said they were "stressed to unhealthy levels." A 2004 study of working New York parents in Erie County demonstrated a strong relationship between family-work conflict and depression, heavy alcohol consumption, poor physical health and high blood pressure.

Parents are caught between spending time with children and maintaining an income that will pay for kids' higher education. Wages of middle-class workers in the United States, adjusted for inflation, are lower than they were in 1970. And it's not just the middle and working classes that feel this pressure. Six-figure earners are often connected to their jobs - via laptops and smartphones - so that work invades every minute of their waking lives.

Experts say that kids do better emotionally - they are more able to combat bullying and suicidal impulses - when parents are more involved in their day-to-day lives. Yet, studies show that daily work stress causes parents to withdraw from family interaction because their capacity for intimacy and emotional engagement has been used up at the office. Parents are often so worn down by their multiple demands that they have nothing left for the effective nurture, structure and discipline that children need.

We need to update societal supports for families. Longer school days and years, for example, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed, would better match parents' workdays. Employers should consider the social consequences of their decisions. Some companies are broadening their goals to encompass the so-called Three Ps: profit, planet and people.

We also should look to rewrite some public policies - as California and New Jersey have done with paid family leave - and raise the quality and availability of child care.

Today's upcoming generation is expected to be educated, technologically savvy and self-starting. Families and communities can prepare them for these challenges - but only if families' psychological, physical and economic health are strong.

This essay was first published in Newsday.