The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work

January 1 st 1998

Metropolitan Books, 1997, 316 pp., $33.50

We in North America have come a long way from the "idyllic," one earner, two-parent family that provided a stable, nurturing environment for children. Arlie Hochschild, the author of The Time Bind and a professor of sociology at the University of California, provides a fascinating look at how the demands of work are playing havoc with the traditional family.

She does so on the basis of an exhaustive three-year study of employment relations at Amerco, a fictitious name for a real Fortune 500 company. The substance of this book is based on numerous interviews and meetings with employees at every level of the company's Midwestern head office and plant facilities.

Ideal company

On the surface, Amerco appears to be an ideal company and a progressive employer. In the early 1980s, it adopted a series of strategies to improve its competitive position in the global market. By introducing the Total Quality work system, which simplified management, it intended to create a new corporate culture that would make all employees feel more "empowered" and more like members of the team. One of its brochures stated: "We believe in diversity. We believe in valuing the individual.

We believe in delighting the customer."

In 1985, Amerco introduced a "family-friendly" policy, consisting of two parts: 1) assisting employees with their parental responsibilities, such as child and after-school care; 2) providing paid-maternity leave, part-time work, job-sharing, and flexible hours. Surprisingly, or so it would seem, the first kind of policies were in heavy demand, whereas the latter were not.

In fact, the rare instances that employees requested extra time off or more flexible hours, management was very reluctant to approve them. While the company stated its concern for a healthy family/work, balance, its actions contradicted the "family-friendly" corporate culture it was trying to cultivate.

Jimmy Layland (the author uses fictitious names throughout) is a good example. Jimmy wanted to rise up the corporate ladder but he also wanted Amerco to understand and honour men like himself caught in the family/work time bind. He explained:

Amerco isn't doing a good enough job matching people's opportunities for money or job titles to their family values. What if you don't want to go to the top? ... We need to be told, "You may lose out on some money or a promotion down the road, but we still value you." . . . We need to change the definition of serious player. A serious player now means someone who has aspirations to go as high as he can, someone who puts in an incredible amount of time, often at the expense of the family. Amerco needs to recognize serious players with serious families." (pp. 129-130)

Getting the job done

The clear message from management was that a willingness to put in long days was a sign of loyalty to the company and a prime requirement for climbing the corporate ladder. Bill Denton, a 60-hour a week senior personnel manager, epitomizes the loyal company man. He quotes his first supervisor as telling him that while he had responsibilities towards his family, he would "still hold [him] accountable for getting the job done" (p. 65).

Denton explains that to make it to the top at Amerco you have to "work like a dog." Company surveys indicated that a quarter of the women and half of the men found it hard to manage their work and family responsibilities; half of the factory and maintenance workers agreed that their marriages were suffering from time pressures. But Denton and his colleagues believed that work should come first.

Over one-third of the employees and 25 per cent of managers are women. The pressure to put in long hours is especially hard on them since they generally are the primary child-care providers. But they, too, put in long hours at work, and in the case of pregnancy, they tend to take off just the minimal amount of time.

A 1990 company survey of its top management revealed that of the total time worked at the office and at home, women worked many more hours than men. Balancing full-time responsibilities of a management position and looking after children, getting them to child-care, and all manner of extra-curricular activities, requires a lot of hectic scheduling and rescheduling of scarce time.

This life-style is particularly hard on children, some of whom are spending forty hours per week in day care. Dropping off a clinging three-year old-at 7:30 a.m. leaves a mother with a lot of guilt. But if she wants to keep on her career track, that's what she has to do.

Benign environment

Perhaps the most surprising finding in Hochschild's research is that many employees feel more at "home" and in control at work than at home. She attributes this to the fact that two-parent wage earners are time-stressed at home. This in turn leads to stress on the marriage, and, as is now so often the case, divorce.

Children are usually the first casualties of time-stressed parents. They resent being trundled off, often hurriedly, to a series of care providers. A growing number of children are deprived of the time and attention they crave from their parents. Again and again, workers describe what is a stressed-out and dysfunctional family situation. This makes them prefer being at work rather than at their often troubled and chaotic homes.

A 38-year old shift supervisor has a two-year old baby, and a 16-year old daughter from a previous marriage. She and her husband work different shifts and have many arguments about the fair division of the work at home. He leaves all the household chores for her when she is at home, and instead goes fishing. Consequently, when she comes home from work she encounters a lot more work and stress, further aggravated by the tension between her daughter and her current husband. Her home is not a place to relax, but one of tension and endless work. In contrast, her place of employment is a benign environment were she feels needed and rewarded. She told the interviewer:

I usually come to work early just to get away from the house. I get there at 2:30 p.m., and people are there waiting. We sit. We talk. We joke. I let them know what's going on. Who has to be where, what changes I've made for the shift that day. We sit there and chit-chat for five or ten minutes. There is laughing, joking, fun. My coworkers aren't putting me down for any reason. Everything is done with humour and fun from beginning to end, although it can be stressful when a machine malfunctions. . . . So I take a lot of overtime. The more I get out of the house, the better I am. It's a terrible thing to say, but that's the way I feel. (pp. 37-38)

Quite a few of the employees are products of broken homes, who themselves had married and divorced, and are now struggling to make ends meet while juggling conflicting responsibilities. Invariably, they echoed their coworker's sentiments about her family/work imbalance.

It did not help that the company, despite its rhetoric, took a hard line and did not try to accommodate the need of mothers. Even when arriving late at work due to sick children, supervisors would penalize latecomers.

On the other hand, workers themselves were sometimes their own worst enemies. A lot of plant workers were used to working overtime. One of them, who often worked 20 extra hours a week, summed up his reason for doing so as follows: "50 per cent for need, 25 per cent for greed, and 25 per cent is getting away from the house" (183).

Trivializing family

The Time Bind describes the damage inflicted by the work-home conflict on family life. The workplace has become a more congenial place than the home, and Hochschild concludes that this strange reversal is due to a devaluation of private life (family) over the public life of the workplace. She suggests a few things that can be done to reverse this trend, such as persuading companies to become more flexible and trusting toward their employees and more respectful of the vital role of the family.

These suggestions are no doubt helpful, but they do not touch on the real cause of the problem that this book describes in a compelling way. The underlying reason for the decline of family life is that North American culture is increasingly losing touch with the true purpose of human existence. Instead of realizing that the gift of life is a sacred trust from the Source of life, and that the family is the central nurturing place for that life, we are trivializing it by treating it as a mere commodity that is subservient to the goal of our own self-realization.

This book describes the tragic results as they are now surfacing in the form of broken marriages, frantic lives, and hurting children. Everyone who has a role to play in the workplace, especially those in authority, should read this book—and heed its urgent message.


Betty Westrik is a Representative for the Christian Labour Association of Canada in Mississauga, Ontario.