How Hard Are The Working Working?


The latest unemployment figures showed some superficially encouraging news last Friday, when "only" 345,000 jobs were reported lost in the month of May.

Americans celebrated that horrific net loss because: a.) it wasn't as bad as expected and b.) it wasn't as bad as the previous four months had been.

Never mind that when you include marginally attached and involuntary part-time workers, the rate of unemployed or underemployed workers hit 16.4% last month, which is almost seven percentage points higher than it was one year ago.

For the 83.6% who are still gainfully employed, the gloom is still pretty pervasive.


Business may be picking up but few of us think our companies will be able to "staff up" anytime soon. And for surviving executives and managers, the Great Recession of 2009 is only adding to a feeling we had even in 2006 when things were hunky dory: we are all OVERWORKED. We have had that feeling for some time due to globalization, the Blackberry, and a little thing called "remote access from the home laptop." It fueled a feeling of 24/7 connectivity to a "virtual sweatshop" – especially for those of us in the professional class. Who among us doesn't claim to work 60 or 70 or even 80 hours a week, right?

Maybe not.

The U.S. Department of Labor has conducted a time diary study called the American Time Use Survey and the latest results indicate we may not be working as hard as we think we are. (Or, as we say we are.) On average, people claiming to work 60-69 hours per week actually only work 52.6, while people claiming in advance to be working more than 70 hours per week actually clocked 58.8 on average. (We also sleep more than we say we do, according to the research.)

Experts suggest various reasons for the discrepancies. One regards the definition of "work." Does work begin when we start reading the news in the morning? Or when we leave our home for the office? Or when we reach the office? Or does it begin when we actually settle in and start to work? Do we dock ourselves for lunch, talking to friends and family on the phone, paying bills and making purchases on-line, etc.? If we leave the office at 7pm but check our Blackberry at 10pm, does that count as "three hours worked?" Do we count commuting time and business travel time as "work" even if we're watching a video or reading our Kindle? Do we remember to discount for holidays and summer Fridays?

The second reason for the discrepancies is that everyone exaggerates: The check is in the mail. The project will be done by Friday. My commute is 25 minutes door-to-door. We especially exaggerate things that matter and in a moment when job security is at a lifetime low, who doesn't want to project an image of 24/7 work habits?

How long did it take me to write this blog? "Three days." (Actual time on research and typing: 27 minutes.)

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Erik Sorenson is CEO of Vault, the Web’s most comprehensive resource for career management and job search intelligence. Vault provides top talent with the insider information they need to make critical career decisions. An Emmy award-winning media industry veteran, Erik served as president of the MSNBC cable news channel through 2004. His experience spans radio, local and network broadcast television, cable and syndicated TV, and the Web.

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