Southerners talk more slowly than people elsewhere in the country, and the traditional image of Southerners sitting out on the porch swing still lingers. But are Southerners really any more laid back when it comes to their work culture?
Just since 1973 the average work week in the U.S. has increased from 40.6 hours to 48.8 hours. Americans have become a society of workaholics, with work occupying an increasingly large portion of their lives. One researcher says that Americans have developed an almost religious attachment to their work.
Southerners may be no better off than workers elsewhere in the country. In fact, because the regions wages are below average, Southerners may be more likely to take a second job to make ends meet.
“My hunch is that, actually, the number of hours worked by someone in the South would be about the same as elsewhere in the country,” said Dr. Ted Ownby, associate professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. “You have to consider the nature of the Southern economy in the past 40 years. There are a lot of jobs out there, but many people have to do more than one job to have the level of income that they are wanting. A lot of lower income people are doing one and a half jobs to try to keep up with a standard of living they want for themselves and their children.”
Ownby, whose book “American Dreams in Mississippi” was published this year, said the idea of the South as being leisurely may be more myth than reality. It started back in the 1800s when travelers to the South noticed that slave owners didn’t work.
“But what they were really amazed about was that white owners of small farms didn’t seem to work very hard, either,” Ownby said. “So that image developed of white Southerners. More recently in the 20th century people both black and white saw the North as more busy, as more single-minded in the pursuit of careers and jobs, and as more faceless and impersonal.”
The negative side of being a workaholic is that people only know each other through their work. And although a lot of Southerners might like to believe they have a more leisurely lifestyle than their Northern counterparts, Ownby believes that image may exist more in memory than fact.
“One of the extraordinary things about Southern workers right now is that so many drive long distances to work,” Ownby said. “They live on the old home place, and drive 45 minutes to an hour and a half to their job. They aren’t only working hard, but are traveling a long way to get to their jobs. I theorize that is why people in the South love stock car racing. They are running around and around, and not getting anywhere.”
Dr. Jim S. Payne, president of Management and Motivation Inc. Oxford, does consulting with businesses nationwide. He has observed there are several different types of work personalities.
The steadfast, stable personality has a strong work ethic and is almost obsessed about work. They define themselves by their job. When additional demands are placed on them, the way they cope is to work extra hours without complaint.
“When the company says jump, they do it, and they do it without complaints,” Payne said. “They will work themselves to death, so to speak. A substantial number of these types of workers pass away shortly after retirement.”
Another type of work personality seen is an assertive, aggressive person who is achievement oriented. They are very interested in attaining personal goals, and believe it isn’t how hard you work that is important, but how smart you work. They believe in bonuses and sales incentive.
“That kind of person, if they work overtime it will be because they see some self gain such as a promotion coming up,” Payne said. “The other group does it out of obligation. This group will work overtime because they can see themselves getting ahead or making more money. What we find with this group is that if the company requires more work out of them, they will try to negotiate. Rather than putting in more hours, will try to work faster and harder.”
Payne said the third common work personality is concerned with feelings, empathy and spontaneity. When a company demands they work extra hours, they will use passive resistance.
“In essence, they just won’t do it,” Payne said. “They may show up, but you won’t get a day’s work for a day’s pay. What is important to them is their everyday existence, their time to themselves. When these individuals are on the job, they are very hard workers. But they see their job and their life separate. They don’t mix the two. “
With the first group, their job and life are seen as the same. The second group sees their job as a means of achievement. The third group sees their personal life and job as entirely separate. Payne said that, in his experience, these generalizations are as true for Mississippi workers as those elsewhere in the country.
Instead of teaching people how to manage time, Payne does what he calls “event management” that focuses on helping people handle job stress by coming to a healthy balance between work and their personal lives.
“I use the example that people when going through life are juggling all these balls in the air,” Payne said. “Stress is getting additional balls to juggle. The point we try to make to people is that there comes a point when your skill level can’t take an additional ball. When that ball comes in, all the balls fall.”
The breaking point can come with a “ball” that may be small. For example, it may not be a major event like loss of a job or a family member that can lead to breakdown. It can be as simple as not being able to get the car started when an incredibly hectic day has been planned to the last minute.
“Your mind doesn’t see that this is a small ball,” Payne said. “It just keeps track of how many balls are in the air. That’s why we try to get people to work within their capacity.”
Usually someone under pressure or stress will either work extra hours, or will work faster. Payne said that is a dead-end path. Instead, in order to have a healthy, purposeful life, people need to take time for things that are important to them such as quality time with family, physical exercise, hobbies and just relaxing.
“The more healthy the individual’s personal life is, the more they are able to cope with stress on the job,” he said. “That is just a fact. You try to get them to have balance between their personal life and work. We get people to visualize that in the form of a star, with each point on the star representing a department of life such as physical, family, social, financial and spiritual. We try to get them to fill up that star. If you are only doing two or three points on the star fairly regularly, then you have an imbalanced star. What we want is a full star, and we say everyone is star worthy.”
Payne said one reason he got into event management is that when he was doing consulting in team building and communication, he found that many times individuals were very frustrated at work. But it wasn’t work that was frustrating them, but the lack of a personal life.
“I began to show them how they could do some things in their personal lives,” Payne said. “We have people keep track of those events that are not job related, and try to make sure they have a half dozen to a dozen of them involved for a week. If you don’t have at least a half dozen, you are working for someone else other than yourself. Helping people get a real good grasp on what is important to them helps them handle job stress. We have had a lot of success with that.”
Payne said he has had people write him a
fter taking the workshops as long as eight or nine
years ago telling him how much attending the event management workshop meant to them.
“They feel better, and are more healthy,” he said. “They have a better life, are more content.”