For most Americans, vacation is just a memory. The kids are back in school. The 9-to-5 routine is in full swing. There is less free time. And for many, that equals more stress.

Time – and the perception of time – and stress are definitely correlated, according to Dr. Tejinder Billing, as assistant professor of management in the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J. And stress not only impacts individuals, it also affects families and employers.

“Work overload,” she said, “leads to excessive demands on an individual’s time and creates uncertainties about his or her ability to perform work effectively.”

Perception’s important
An individual’s perception is as important in such a situation as reality.

“While objective workload associated with a given role is clearly important, it is the perception of the overload ... that is more important,” Billing said. “Individuals have a threshold level for workload, beyond which work is perceived as overload. When an individual’s workload exceeds the optimal level that he or she is comfortable with on a daily basis in the work situation, then psychological strain is the likely outcome.”

“While work and perception of amount of work is important, a silent variable is time,” she added. “The essence of work overload is to do too much work in given amount of ‘time.’ Although we all continually refer to time, we quite easily forget about it when reflecting on stressful events.”

Billing, who earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the University Memphis; an M.B.A. from Punjabi University, India; and a B.Tech. in agricultural engineering from Punjabi Agricultural University, India, has studied stress, time and work-family conflict among men and women in the United States, her native India and Venezuela.

Billing became interested in studying temporal (relating to time) orientation while a student at the University of Memphis.

Driven by the clock
“I realized people are so driven by the clock,” she said. “I actually didn’t find one single room in my school that didn’t have a clock. In India, clocks are not of such importance.”

People also emphasize planning and scheduling of activities more in individualistic societies than in collectivistic societies. Cultures impact how people factor time and deal with stress. So do attitudes toward time.

Westerners, she said, are sensitive to time, in tune with the adage “time is money.” Latin American and Asian cultures tend to see time as abundant. “Like the flow of a river, it’s just going to keep coming, so why worry about it,” is how she explained their approach.

People need to keep that in mind when dealing with those from other cultures.

Cultural differences
“If I’m not sensitive toward time like in Western countries, I can be in trouble when everyone is sensitive,” Billing said. “If I’m time-driven and you’re taking me to Latin America where perception of is time is abundant, I’ll be stressed out.”

“Some of us are raised sequential. We like to do one thing at a time and then move to another. And that leads us to have different attitudes toward time,” the business professor said. “We all have different attitudes toward time. We have different senses of time. And as a result we perceive and use time differently.”

Still, her research indicated that people in the United States, India and Venezuela all feel stress when they perceive themselves as having too much work and too little time in which to get it done.

Differences emerge in how people who emphasize planning and scheduling of their work and non-work activities experience stress. Her research found that people who put high emphasis on planning are better able to deal with work overload than those who do not emphasize planning and scheduling of activities in their work and non-work lives. Her research also showed cultural differences in terms that planning was only effect in the U.S. (i.e, a collectivistic country). The positive effects of planning were not significant in the collectivistic countries of India and Venezuela. This provides further credence to how people across cultures perceive and use time, she said.

A key to making the most of time – perceived or real – and to reducing stress is to plan, at least in the United States, according to the professor’s research. “For individuals who emphasize planning and scheduling, the strength of the relationship between stressors and psychological strain is weaker than for individuals who do not emphasize planning and scheduling,” she said.