Extreme jobs and how many hours we work

Since I began studying time more than a dozen years ago, I have been fascinated by the topic of estimated work hours. When people get paid by the hour, they know exactly how many hours they work. When people earn salaries, this can be more nebulous, especially given that the boundaries between work and not-work are permeable (if you have a thought about work while watching a movie…are you working? I have found that some people say yes…though if they think about an argument they had with a friend during work hours, they don’t then subtract this from the tally).

Many people do not know how many hours are in a week (168). When you don’t know the denominator of a fraction, estimating the numerator, in order to give you the proportion that you feel is right, is an inexact science at best.

Surveys tend to ask about a “typical” week, but deciding what is “typical” is a judgement call based on the narratives we have about our lives. Throw in that we live in a competitive world — especially in certain industries — and you have a recipe for high numbers. Lest you think I am immune to this, I used to talk about working 50 hours a week, until I started tracking my time continuously back in 2015. I then realized that the weeks I’d chosen to track for public consumption had been chosen precisely because they were longer. In my mind, long hours meant I was hard-working. I wanted people to know what a hard worker I was. And I am a hard worker! But my long-term work hour average that first year of tracking was closer to 40. (These days, it is lower.)

I was thinking of this over the past week when I saw headlines claiming that people at a certain financial firm were working 98 hours a week. This turned out to be a leaked internal report about 13 first-year analysts. The far more interesting part of the study was people’s poor rating of life satisfaction and mental health, and that they had been subject to workplace abuse — but that isn’t what led the stories.

There are always horrific supervisors or projects; I know nothing about which particular 13 people responded, and what led to this report being commissioned (maybe a complaint about a hazing-style reliance on all-nighters — an idiotic form of management for sure. I know many people have job horror stories they can recount.).

In general, though, when you are trying to draw conclusions about work hours, the only way to get accurate answers is to have people keep track of their time for at least a week, hour by hour, as they go along. When you do this, what you tend to find is that even extreme jobs involve fewer hours than headline numbers.

I’ve seen thousands of time logs over the years. Some of those have been for my book projects, like I Know How She Does It, when I recruited women earning over $100,000 a year, who also had kids, to track their time for a week. This survey included people at various consulting firms, financial firms, law firms, tech companies, etc. The longest logged work week was 69 hours — which came from an accountant in busy season. She had records from the rest of the year and those numbers were generally lower. There were a few other semi-atypical long weeks. One person went to a conference on the Saturday and Sunday of the week she tracked — which wasn’t something she did every weekend, but which definitely drove up the tallies.

Some of the folks in the 60s and high 50s, though, were in “extreme” jobs, and those hours seemed fairly typical for their lives. Over the years I’ve given speeches various places and people (men and women) have tracked their time in advance of that. I’ve found that numbers in the 60s are often where these extreme jobs land.

Let’s be clear: anywhere in the 60s is an incredibly long workweek. You can see this by working through an example. Let’s say someone thinks of their typical hours as 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week, and they work full-time hours almost all weekend days. It’s almost impossible to work with no breaks for 12 hours straight. If someone manages to log 11 hours during those 12-hour shifts, that gets you to 55 hours by Friday night…except in many places people turn off earlier on Friday. Let’s say 7 p.m. Now we’re down to 53 hours.

Of course, that leaves the whole weekend to work with. But these weekend shifts might not exactly match the weekdays. Let’s say someone works from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. both weekend days, managing to log 8 hours in each shift. That’s 16 total hours, which gets us to 69 hours. If the person manages to log an extra 2.5 hours two evenings during the week (working until midnight, with 30 minutes more “off” in there) we are at 74 hours. If a day starts later, or has more interruptions, or a weekend shift is shorter, we are back in the 60s. Yet someone who works until midnight multiple nights per week and works seven days a week probably won’t say he/she works 65-75 hours per week. It feels like more.

I suspect that sometimes high estimates stem from a lack of control over hours (which is often the case for first years at these extreme job places). If you never know for sure when you will be done, then it feels like work occupies all non-sleeping time, even if this doesn’t wind up being the case.

If you do control the hours, then long hours can feel more manageable. In the example of hours above, a person might have breakfast with their family any mornings they were home before starting work at 9 a.m. most days. Friday evening might feature a late dinner with a spouse. Saturday morning could feature a bike ride, with a lunch time walk happening a few days per week as well.

In any case, I believe there is much to be gained by tracking hours — for everyone. If I know I’m more likely to be working 40 hours (or 35!) than 50, I can be more careful about what I take on. Someone who logs hours and finds the number is very high can decide what to do with that information. I’ve also found, in industries known for extreme hours, that over time as people become more senior and gain more control of their time, it can be possible to aim for 55-60 hours a week. These jobs will never be 40 hours — but they don’t pay like 40 hours either. If you work 56 hours a week, and sleep (+ shower) for 56 hours a week, that leaves 56 hours for other things. It might not be the normal definition of balance, but it’s a version of balance nonetheless.


8 thoughts on “Extreme jobs and how many hours we work

  1. I think you will find many people in medicine who still take call shifts (up to 24-30 hours) often feel like they work ‘all the time’ and/or really do have high tallies – a 24 hour day makes the hours add up fast, even if the rest of the week is reasonable. Do we really work 24 full hours without stopping – it depends on the day! Sometimes you can fit other things in. There is also the particular torture known as ‘home call’ – does talking on the phone with my patient while drowning out the screaming from the birthday party my kid is at count as work or kid time? So many counting dilemmas! But I think being ‘on call’ where you are often able to do other things, but still with one ear for the pager (or whatever way you define as being ‘on’) is one reason why I, at least, feel like I am working ‘all the time’ even when the hours may not show that.

    1. @Annie I was going to say the same think. An every 4th night 24 hour call like I did in my residency days averages an 80 hour work week with some weeks feeling awful (on call from from 8 am Saturday to 11 am Sunday “Black weekend”) and some weeks aren’t so bad (Call from 8am Thursday to 10 am Friday then off Sat and Sunday “Golden weekend”). Talking about this still sends shivers up my spine, and I trained after work-hours rules were imposed for residents. Back in the old days residents could take 24 hour hour calls every two days and could easily rack up >100 hours per week of work.

      Of course, most residents expect a better schedule after they complete their training. I haven’t slept in a hospital call room in almost 10 years and life is MUCH more balanced. I am not sure I would have gone into medicine if 80 hour work weeks continued beyond residency/fellowship.

      1. I finished residency and fellowship last year and cannot imagine going back to working that much. Truly working 80 hours per week, or even 60 hours was so brutal. When I first started reading Laura’s work I was like, yep, most people have no idea what actually working 80 hours would feel like. Like @Annie I also hate being on call even as an attending just because I don’t like the feeling of being on the whole time, but fortunately I only do this a few times a year now.

        1. And by the way in case anyone doesn’t know residents actually are required to track their work hours now, every week, every day. So we know exactly how much we worked.

  2. What often gets overlooked in these conversations is the mental energy that work requires. I might be working 40-45 hours a week, but if I have a lot of start-and-stop tasks, or responsibilities that require immediate action/response/output, that feels a lot worse than 40-45 hours of steady work without highs and lows. I know when I can’t get into the groove workwise — usually because of factors outside my control — I do not have as much mental energy to enjoy the downtime. Or to even PLAN how I want to spend my downtime. I agree with your premise that time tracking can show useful patterns, but I maintain that not all hours are created equal.

  3. I am wondering how you judge the fact that many people do not work the 40 hours they are paid for. On one hand, I think many jobs are more about output than hours, on the other hand when I work only 30 hours a week, I feel guilty.

    1. @Maggie – this is a good question. My general sense is that if the outcomes of the job are being met, then the hours aren’t the most important factor. Now, if someone is doing the job in 2 hours a week, they’ll probably be bored enough that this justifies a talk with a supervisor. There is also a problem if a normal full-time job seems to be taking a lot longer than other employees are working. But within a 30-50 range we’re probably all OK.

  4. Laura, I know this article is about tracking work hours, but I wish there were a way to report on the stress of jobs that may only require 40 hours per week, but employees have to work through lunch in order to stay on top of the work. Or in my case, I am required to eat lunch with my students at the school where I teach. (And yes, the union says it’s okay!)

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