Americans Are Lying About How Much They Work

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Hang around in certain circles long enough, and you hear a lot about 70-hour work weeks. 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.

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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.

1. 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!

2. 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?

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