15 years of consulting in niche markets

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.


The overwork epidemic is now the defining plight of the modern worker

The fear of a global glut of overstressed employees is making its way into corporate policies. German automaker Volkswagen now shuts down employees’ email accounts for the day 30 minutes after their shift. Inspired by the policy, Germany’s labour ministry forbids managers from contacting employees after work, except in case of emergencies. This year, the Swedish city of Gothenburg is experimenting with six-hour work days for municipal workers in hopes it reduces burnout and boosts productivity. In a survey this year of Canadian companies and employees, global HR consulting firm Towers Watson found that some firms have started offering yoga and tai chi at the office and are enacting formal anti-stress policies to encourage greater work-life balance.


 Do you work or do you THINK that you work?

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, a comparison was made of 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.

It has been 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.”


 Who overestimate their time the most?

The research has shown 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.

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.


So what is the conclusion?

In a culture that equates long work hours and workplace stress with success 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. All that social pressure to be overworked is compounded by the fact that most people actually have very little understanding of what they’re doing with the 168 hours they have available to them each week.

The real problem, isn’t bosses who send emails at 3 a.m.; it’s employees who think they have to respond immediately. What we need instead is to start finding the courage to admit we’re not actually that busy. If you want to turn your BlackBerry off, go ahead and do it. Maybe Earth will crash into the sun. But we’re really not that important.


Tuesday Apr 11, 2017