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.
Businesswoman resting
Photo illustration by Lauren Cattermole

In her latest book, released in March, Arianna Huffington recalls waking up in a pool of blood on the floor of her home office. She’d collapsed from the exhaustion of 18-hour workdays, and struck her head on her desk. The experience led Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, to the conclusion that overwork and sleep deprivation have become “worldwide epidemics,” responsible for everything from depression and obesity, to the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank. “The Western workplace culture is practically fuelled by stress, sleep deprivation and burnout,” she writes in Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

Thrive is billed as Huffington’s road map for how to achieve a new definition of success based on mindfulness rather than money and power. (Easy for Huffington to say now; she sold her online media empire to AOL for US$315 million in 2011.) It’s the latest in an array of literature to hit bookshelves in the past year on what is perceived to be one of the greatest social disasters of our time—overwork—including Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time and Katrina Alcorn’s Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.

The fear of a global glut of overstressed employees is even 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. (In Thrive, Huffington boasts that her company offers regular breathing and meditation classes, fridges stocked with hummus and baby carrots and “nap pods” where employees can go to de-stress.)

The overwork epidemic is now the defining plight of the modern worker. But as popular as the narrative has become, there is scant evidence that we’re actually busier or more overworked than in the past. If anything, today’s employees work less, do less housework, spend more time with their kids and get more sleep than previous generations. “The data goes back to 1965, almost 50 years now, and there’s just no evidence a lot of people are pressed for time,” says John Robinson, a University of Maryland professor who heads Americans’ Use of Time Project and does some of the most comprehensive international studies of time use. “That’s not to say that there aren’t people out there who are genuinely stressed, but on average it’s not an epidemic.”

Despite a sluggish economy that has left millions of Americans feeling they have to work harder just to keep their jobs, the average employed American worked just 34.2 hours a week last year, while the number of people working “extreme jobs” of more than 60 hours a week makes up just one per cent of the population. Meanwhile, Americans report getting slightly more than eight hours of sleep a night, a number that’s remained roughly constant over the past half-century. If anything, workers are getting slightly more sleep than they did in the past, Robinson says.

The trends are similar in Canada. A Statistics Canada study from 2011 that compared how people spent their time in 1998 and 2010, found that, overall, women are putting in roughly the same number of hours at the office today as they did in the 1990s, while men are working 14 minutes less. Canadians also reported getting 13 more minutes of sleep a day in 2010 than they did in 1998. Fewer people now say that they’re prisoners to their schedule, or describe themselves as workaholics. Meanwhile, the proportion of Canadians who say they have no time for fun fell from 38 per cent to 29 per cent. “In general,” the StatsCan researchers found, “Canadians seem to be experiencing less time stress.”

Some Canadians are indeed working more than past generations, although they’re mainly concentrated among a niche group of highly educated and skilled workers, including managers and those in the health care system, says Gilles Pronovost, professor emeritus of leisure studies at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. “It’s not that everyone is working more,” he says. “It’s because very specific parts of the population are working more.”

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, Robinson compared 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.

He’s 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.”

Pronovost has found similar discrepancies in the amount of time Canadians think they work and the actual time they spend at their jobs, while researchers have found that, by and large, Canadians spend roughly the same amount of time working, sleeping and watching television as Americans.


When they broke down the U.S. time estimates by profession, Robinson and colleagues found 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. The typical lawyer works, in fact, 43 hours a week, says Robinson. “People think that lawyers work 80 hours a week. Lawyers think they work 80 hours a week. They tell people that. But have them keep a diary and you’ll find out where their time really goes.” 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.

In a culture that equates long work hours and workplace stress with success, Robinson thinks 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, says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. “Most people don’t know how many hours they work,” she says. “They have this idea that a long work week is whatever they’ve heard from other people in their company who say they’re putting in 70 hours. They haven’t actually calculated it, but you don’t ever want to say you’re working less than other people.”

The implications of overestimating how much we work are profound, Vanderkam says, since it means that some otherwise qualified people won’t even consider careers in industries that are seen to have punishing work hours, like medicine or law, because they don’t want to be slaves to their job. “This lack of transparency about how many hours we’re actually working has effects on people.”

It can be even more difficult to quantify just how productive we are with our work time, since people aren’t always honest in their time diaries about how much time they spend browsing the web or chatting with colleagues at the water cooler. But if time spent at work was a good measure of productivity, then Greece, which reports some of the longest work hours in the Western world, would be a global economic powerhouse instead of a basket case. Research shows people tend to view exactly the same websites—say Facebook, Twitter or TMZ—at work as they do at home, Robinson says, which suggests a fair amount of workplace procrastination. Fernando Lozano, an economist with Pomona College in California, has found a “statistically significant” drop in workplace productivity on days when U.S. television stations broadcast FIFA World Cup games. The drop was mainly among salaried workers, who aren’t financially penalized for taking a break to watch the game, rather than hourly employees.

Technology has only helped blur the lines between work time and private time, says Vanderkam, making us feel like we’re working even when we’re not. “When I’ve had people talk to me about how many hours they work, they literally just subtract how many hours they sleep from the day,” she says. “But when you think about it, it’s not right. If you’re watching a movie, the fact that your BlackBerry is on doesn’t mean that you’re working. If you’re eating dinner, the fact that your phone could ring means you might consider yourself in work mode, but you’re not working. Some people have a hard time with that.”

There is evidence that the work-life balance debate is in part fuelled by employers themselves rather than their employees. In its survey of Canadian employers and workers, HR firm Towers Watson notes that 83 per cent of employers say work-life balance is the biggest cause of stress among employees. Workers, however, were far more likely to say their stress was caused by things such as short-staffing, fears over job security and the overall culture of their company.

Vanderkam thinks the new-found drive among some companies to enforce formal work-life balance policies, such as no after-work email, may end up backfiring, since such policies make the workplace even less flexible by strictly enforcing traditional working hours. “I have talked to a couple of companies that pride themselves on having policies that email can’t be sent after certain hours,” she says “That’s fine, but people still wind up working around it. Maybe the CEO likes that there’s no email after 6 p.m., but maybe someone else wants to be shut down at 4 p.m. so he or she can pick up the kids at school and then get back to it three hours later. What you really want is for people to have a system that works for them, that works with their own life.”

The real problem, she says, 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,” says Vanderkam. “Maybe Earth will crash into the sun. But we’re really not that important.”