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Work-load myth

Thumbnail image for Pierre Battah (2013)
How many hours do you really work each week?

It has become a badge of honour for some to cite the many hours they work claiming excessive demands, the impact of mobile technology and our 24-7 economy as the cause. A number of recent books and articles bemoan the state of our busy lives. Work life balance as an issue now occupies a lot of time and energy of HR departments and employee advocates. Rightfully so, as a lot of people are challenged by making work and life fit together, however, our perception of the number of hours we actually work may not be supported by the facts. It appears we have difficulty with the accuracy of work hours in the same way those who tell fishing stories are challenged to remember the size of their catch or the one that got away.

Statistics Canada reminds us that Canadians worked essentially the same number of hours in 2010 as in the 1990's. Yet another study cited by the Harvard Business Review establishes those who claim to work between 55 and 64 hours overestimate their work time by an average of 10 hours and those who claim 65 to 74 hours are off by an average of 20 hours. In case you are wondering, studies have established Canadians and Americans are very similar in this regard.

American academic John Robinson, a leader in the field of time use, has done extensive work that demonstrates some occupations are more prone to over estimation of their work hours. The highly educated, the skilled trades, managers and people in healthcare appear to overestimate the most. Food service people underestimate the most. People's perception of their work time when they answer questionnaires is markedly different from when they keep a precise diary. Are we really bad at estimating or are we intentionally inflating the numbers or both?

The reasons why we overestimate vary from wanting to appear more industrious, to never wanting to admit to working less than others to the fear of appearing lazy in a work centered society. By the way, both men and women exaggerate the number of hours we do housework by 2 times so our stretching does not only apply to paid work.

The implications of our collective overestimations are very real. Employers, in fact entire countries are now putting in limitations on when the boss can send email in order to protect workers. A policy which at the surface appears to be helpful in the work-life balance struggle can actually be a detriment to employees choosing flexibility to respond to their work demands on a schedule that benefits them.

Clearly, many of us are working a lot, however as Laura Vanderkam's excellent book: 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think reminds us, tracking how much time we really work (and how much time we spend doing everything else) is one of the keys to telling ourselves and others the facts. If work hours are excessive, having accurate data will make the conversation with the boss much more convincing. Accurate information should curb the tall tales about how much we work, and who knows, there may be time to do a little more fishing.

Listen to Pierre on Information Morning Moncton with Vanessa Blanch:

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Pierre Battah appears on Information Morning Moncton every Monday morning after the 7:30 news and sports. You can follow his blog at

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