You don’t work as much as you think

Hang around in certain circles long enough, and you hear a lot about 70-hour workweeks. Then, after that complaint, you start hearing about 80-hour workweeks, and so forth in the arms race. People claim they fantasize about 60-hour workweeks, billed by some as the new “part-time.”

We may feel we’re overworked, but there’s evidence that when it comes to estimated workweeks, we have a different problem than that implied by these sweatshop hours. Namely, we lie.

In the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review, John Robinson (of the University of Maryland) and other time use researchers, crunched numbers from the American Time Use Survey and the Current Population Survey, in order to compare people’s estimated workweeks with recorded workweeks. By recorded workweeks, I mean that people had to report back to a researcher what they did during the course of the previous day, one thing after another.  Audits find this “time diary” method is fairly accurate.

The authors of the paper write that “Workers estimating 50- to 80-hour workweeks had progressively greater gaps between this estimate and what they reported in their diaries.” You can guess which direction this gap went. Basically no one reporting an 80-hour workweek was underestimating. As the authors write, “The greater the estimate, the greater the overestimate”

You can download the study here. Pulling rough numbers off Chart 1 on p. 49, you can see that people estimating 75+ hour workweeks had a gap of about 25 hours per week as compared to what people estimated was a “usual” workweek. That means that someone claiming an 80-hour week is quite likely to be working around 55-hours. That’s a long workweek, but it’s not incredibly long. People in the 55-74-hour estimated range had about a 10-17 hour gap — lower on the low end, higher toward the top.

The authors broke these findings down by gender and found that women, curiously, were more prone to exaggerating long workweeks. A woman estimating a 50-59 hour workweek appears (from Chart 2 on p. 50) to be off by about 13 hours; a similar man appears to be about 8 hours off. There could be many explanations for this. Men may be more likely to be earning hourly wages at the longer end of the workweek (meaning they know how many hours they billed). Or perhaps women are more likely to feel overworked because they have larger household workloads on top of their paid workweeks. Claiming a long workweek becomes a proxy for feeling that one lacks leisure time.

Regardless, this study (which was linked to in the NY Times Economix blog recently) bolsters the case that any laments of 80-hour workweeks should be taken with a grain of salt. I think we can take a few bits of career advice from this.

First, if you are thinking of taking a job in a field where people talk about 80-hour workweeks, know that it may not be quite like that in reality. I’ve had several people in such industries keep time logs for me, and I find they tend to be working right around 60-hour workweeks. Sixty hours is doable. Work 60, sleep 7-8 per night (let’s say 50 per week) and that leaves 58 hours for other things — just about the same amount as you’re working. That sounds like work-life balance to me!

And second, if you work in an organization where people are inclined to talk about 80-hour workweeks, and you’re thinking of negotiating a part-time agreement, make sure you get the denominator nailed down. Working 40 hours per week, and getting paid 50 percent because the assumed denominator is 80, isn’t a good deal if it turns out your colleagues are actually working 55-60 hours per week.

Have you ever kept track of your workweeks? What did you find?

Photo courtesy flickr user deux-chi

7 thoughts on “You don’t work as much as you think

  1. I think you do have to ask whether those people claiming long work weeks get to go home or do something else while they are not technically working, or if, due to hourly requirements or workplace culture, they have to be sitting there looking busy or in the space being available and giving face time, even if they are actually on Facebook or reading the NYT or chatting at the water cooler. To me, it still counts as work if I am required to be there.

    If I’m working from home or being paid by the piece rather than by the hour, I can be just as much, or even more, productive in a shorter amount of time, and keeping a time log helped me in that regard. But for projects where face time is required, I count it as work time even if I’m technically getting the actual work done faster.

    1. @Catherine – In the study I reference, they note that something counted as “work” in the time log if people called it work. So if you said you were at work, you were working unless you took an official break (e.g. going out for lunch). The authors mentioned that there’s reason to believe that many of these work hours — that are being logged as work in time diaries — aren’t in fact work. Studies that have had people wear beepers and then record exactly what they’re doing find that a lot of those work hours feature non-work related things (personal email, websurfing, water cooler time, etc). So the actual gap may be even bigger. But this version gives people the benefit of the doubt. If you are at work, even if you’re on Facebook, it’s work.

  2. As you know, I often keep time logs, so I know that I work between 35 and 45 hours almost all weeks. I’m just coming out of a crunch time, and have found that I’m still “only” working ~40 hours/week- this is partly because my work crunch was “balanced” by a crunch at home, too- but it is also because I have gotten fairly attuned to when I am being productivity (thanks in large part to the time log habit!) and I don’t see the point in “working” when I’m not actually being productive. So I don’t do it.
    I have another anecdote for you: back when I was a contractor/consultant and charged hours, I would occasionally be offered the chance to charge overtime (usually when a contract was in crunch time). I usually took the offer, but I found that I literally couldn’t charge more than 55 hours/week- not and adhere to our ethics, anyway, since there is no charge code for “siting and staring slackjawed at the computer screen” or “aimlessly surfing the web because my brain is full.” That was a real learning experience for me, too!

    1. @Cloud- when I was an intern at Fortune, I had a similar experience. After the internship ended I was hired as a temp, basically, for a few weeks to finish a project that was in massive crunch time. I was supposed to bill by the hour, and got time and a half for over 35 hours with no real limit on it (hey, it was the dot-com era). But yes, even coming in on weekends, I don’t think I ever billed more than 55 hours for a week. Work from 9-9 four days a week with an hour total off for lunch and dinner, work 9-6 with hour off on Friday and then a few hours in the office on Saturday and you hit 55. Not 80.

  3. In both of the jobs I’ve been where I felt overworked, it was indeed not due to the absolute number of hours. The biggest time sink was the emotional and mental consequences of dealing with difficult people, people with no sense of appropriate boundaries, interruptions, and constantly changing schedules.

    In some ways I find the perception to be much more interesting than the number. Why do some 35-hour/week jobs feel like 60, and how can you make sure you don’t end up in one of those?

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