May 22, 2014


Working hard or hardly working? : People claim they're putting in more time at their jobs than ever before. Turns out we toil a lot less than we think. (Tamsin McMahon, May 5, 2014, MacLean's)

The overwork epidemic is now the defining plight of the modern worker. But as popular as the narrative has become, there is scant evidence that we're actually busier or more overworked than in the past. If anything, today's employees work less, do less housework, spend more time with their kids and get more sleep than previous generations. "The data goes back to 1965, almost 50 years now, and there's just no evidence a lot of people are pressed for time," says John Robinson, a University of Maryland professor who heads Americans' Use of Time Project and does some of the most comprehensive international studies of time use. "That's not to say that there aren't people out there who are genuinely stressed, but on average it's not an epidemic."

Despite a sluggish economy that has left millions of Americans feeling they have to work harder just to keep their jobs, the average employed American worked just 34.2 hours a week last year, while the number of people working "extreme jobs" of more than 60 hours a week makes up just one per cent of the population. Meanwhile, Americans report getting slightly more than eight hours of sleep a night, a number that's remained roughly constant over the past half-century. If anything, workers are getting slightly more sleep than they did in the past, Robinson says. [...]

Despite all evidence to the contrary, we really do believe we're suffering from an epidemic of busyness. In a study of both U.S. and Belgian workers, Robinson compared people's perceptions of how much time they dedicated to various activities--everything from working at the office, to doing laundry at home--to the amount of time they actually reported spending on those activities in time diaries, which required them to give a detailed breakdown of what they did during every hour of their day.

He's found that the average person overestimates how much time they spend at their jobs by roughly two to three hours per week. That adds up. Assuming three weeks of vacation and an eight-hour work day, people on average spend the equivalent of 18 full days thinking they're working when they're actually not. We also drastically overestimate how much time we spend doing household chores--both men and women say they spend almost twice as much time doing housework as they actually do. We exaggerate how much time we spend attending religious services and volunteering. We underestimate how much sleep we get by nearly an hour. And when it comes to free time, the researchers found we have a full 10 hours more of it per week than we believe. The amount of time we spend watching television also continues to rise, despite how much time we now spend on the Internet and on our smartphones. "It's part of this mindset that we always have to keep busy," Robinson says. "It's a status symbol to say that you feel busy. If you're not busy, you're not a functioning person in our 24-7 economy. But it's largely self-imposed." [...]

When they broke down the U.S. time estimates by profession, Robinson and colleagues found that the more education and skill required for a job, the more people exaggerate how much they work. CEOs overestimate their work hours far more than office managers. Police officers exaggerate more than security guards.

Lawyers were some of the worst offenders, overestimating their work week by 7.2 hours. Despite the stereotype of the 80-hour work week in law, fewer than two per cent of lawyers actually worked that much and only 15 per cent worked 60 hours or more. The typical lawyer works, in fact, 43 hours a week, says Robinson. "People think that lawyers work 80 hours a week. Lawyers think they work 80 hours a week. They tell people that. But have them keep a diary and you'll find out where their time really goes." On the other end of the spectrum, those in low-skill jobs like food service actually tended to underestimate how much they worked: waiters underestimate their work week by nearly two hours, stock clerks by more than three hours.

In a culture that equates long work hours and workplace stress with success, Robinson thinks people have begun to "misestimate" how they use their time in ways that seem more socially desirable. Those at the top of the career ladder exaggerate the most because they're under the greatest pressure to prove to the world that they're worth every penny they earn. Those at the bottom of the ladder tend to consider their time less valuable and therefore underestimate how hard they work.

Let's face it, we resent even the two productive hours we spend at work each day.

Posted by at May 22, 2014 2:55 PM

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