How many hours do you work per week?
It seems like a straightforward question, and yet it’s less clear than it seems. For instance, which week? This week? Many Americans have today, Monday, off, so this isn’t a “typical” week. But what is a typical week?
I was thinking about this question when I read the results of a recent Gallup Poll. According to the LA Times write-up:
“Just 42% of full-time employees work 40 hours a week, the traditional total based on five 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. workdays, Gallup said of findings it released ahead of the Labor Day weekend. Nearly the same percentage — 39% — say they work at least 50 hours a week. And almost one in five Americans, or 18%, said their workweek stretched 60 hours or more.”
Gallup’s usual model is to contact people and ask them things. But when it comes to estimating work hours, this methodology doesn’t work as well as asking whether you approve of Pres. Obama’s performance. The truth is, many of us don’t know how many hours we work, and we’re also prone to systematic bias based on things that may not be true.
So let’s start with the first problem. Forty hours is not the definition of full time. Usually 35 hours is. That still may mean 9 to 5, but few workers work straight through. When I was working at a fast food restaurant, an 8-hour shift involved a 30-minute break for lunch, and 2 15-minute “smoke” breaks. Most office workers take breaks too. It’s unclear from the LA Times write-up how many people chose 35 hours as an option, but it's not uncommon.
Second, we have some reasonable data about the average work week already that we can compare this poll to for accuracy. According to the BLS’s employment situation summary, it’s 34.5 hours per week. Now, granted, Gallup is asking about full-time workers. But if we look at the American Time Use Survey, which relies on time diaries rather than asking people to estimate, we find that 71.9 percent of FT workers worked on an “average” day, and they worked 8.09 hours on that day. If you multiply a 7-day week times 0.719 you get almost exactly 5 days (it’s 5.03). So when you multiply that by 8.09 you get 40.7, or very close to the 40-hour ideal. If a survey gets 47 hours as the average, there’s clearly something different going on.
The difference is hinted at by the finding that 39 percent work more than 50 hours a week and 18 percent work more than 60. Generally, as people work more hours, they earn more. Consequently, when you’re looking at very high earners, you’d expect to see longer work weeks. But when I recently looked at the time diaries of women making 6-figures (for Mosaic, my next book), I found that fewer than 6 percent worked more than 60 hours a week.
The truth is, unless people get paid by the hour, they may not know how many hours they work. And in an environment where people like to talk about how busy and stressed they are, where no one wants to appear like a slacker compared to the guy in the next cubicle, it’s easy to succumb to work week inflation. A “60-hour week” sounds like the kind of long week you’re working, so that’s what you tell Gallup.
But that doesn’t make it true. The only 60-hour workweek I've ever managed was when my kids were gone for a week and it felt like I was working around the clock to finish my book manuscript. I didn't have a commute or anything else to interrupt me. I pretty much went from my bed to my desk. I worked all 7 days, and still just barely topped 60 hours.
Talking about how overworked everyone is may be one way to celebrate Labor Day, but I tend to think taking an honest look at one’s workweeks is the best way to start using them better. That’s how to start turning one’s labor into something to celebrate.