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.