Arun Garg, a Miami dentist specializing in implants, has three sons and three business ventures. On a given day, he might take a short break between patients at his Aventura office and text one of his sons to see how his day is going. On a given night, if his sons are preoccupied, Garg will pull out his smartphone and respond to a work email or check on who has registered for his upcoming workshop.
Ask this Miami dental implant expert how much time he works per week and he is unable to answer with accuracy. “Yes, I’m working outside of the office, but it doesn’t feel like I’m working if I am doing it sporadically,” he says.
Most salaried workers, when asked, will say they put in much more than 40 hours a week. But researchers who track our time use found Americans with full-time jobs spent eight hours and eight minutes a day working or traveling to work, only five minutes more than a decade earlier.
So, what’s going on? Are Americans as overworked and overloaded as they profess to be?
In our quest to find work/life balance, our time use is complicated. Some people work a lot. Some don’t. And many interval work — switching between work and personal tasks throughout the day, and night — in a pattern that makes tracking time use increasingly difficult.
If your workday is anything like mine, you might sit down in front of your computer screen to start a project and become distracted by a new email. Then, you might work for an hour, and take a quick break to check Facebook. The switching between personal and business tasks at the workplace has become so habitual that some researchers believe Americans spend as much as two hours of an eight-hour workday doing non-work tasks, whether or not we realize it.
“Tracking time has become complicated, says Fred Krieger, founder and CEO of Scoro, a San Francisco productivity/project management software firm. “Companies track every small expense to the last cent, but if you look at how employees spend their time, it’s quite loosely managed, especially in roles that are hard to measure.”
When employers ask workers to manually track their time, productivity improves, Krieger says. “Even if management doesn’t look at reports, it changes the way people plan their workday.” Still, no one can work eight hours straight, and most can only work about 45 minutes without an internal or external interruption, Krieger says. “Six hours of productive work a day is satisfying for most bosses.” Of course, some employees waste much more than two hours a day playing online games or chatting with co-workers.
In Sweden, some organizations are experimenting with a six-hour workday with the premise that shorter days will help workers concentrate on high-priority tasks. In America, some businesses have allowed four-day work weeks. Preliminary results show workers who put in fewer hours often are more productive. Publicist Jennifer Clarin with Boardroom Communications in Plantation works a four-day work week and says doing so forces her to forgo typical workplace distractions or switching between tasks in favor of more focused work. “I have this many hours to get it done, so I do,” she says. Although, she still may log on from home as necessary, she says. “It all evens out if you are accountable to yourself.”
Whether a continuous connection with the workplace is a need, a perk, or a habit, the American Time Use Survey shows more people bring work home. On the days employed people worked in 2015, 24 percent did at least some tasks from home, up from 19 percent in 2003, the survey’s first year. However, this is mostly true for salaried or self-employed workers. Those with lower-paying jobs work less, spending more time sleeping and watching television, offsetting increased time on the job for many better-educated workers, the 2016 American Time Use survey found. Although a service worker might send a personal text message from the sales floor, it’s usually under the radar. “Managers are expecting them to give their full attention to the job,” says Liana Sayer, director of the Time Use Laboratory at the University of Maryland.
Going forward, Sayer says a combination of trends will make American work hours even more difficult to track. “Standard business hours are dissolving, more stores are open longer hours, more people are working outside a 9-to-5 shift, and more people are working whenever an employer wants them to, or with the gig economy, whenever they feel like working,” she says.
In our desire for work/life balance, knowing how much time we spend on leisure activity is equally as complicated, in part because of the increase in smartphone use. The American Time Use Survey shows Americans spend about five hours a day doing leisure activity, with television watching accounting for more than half of that time. However, many people watch television with their mobile devices in hand and sporadically check work email, tweet or respond to text messages, watch videos or “like” posts on social media sites.
Researchers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics say their time diaries don’t track smartphone usage, nor do they capture multitasking. But findings by Informate Mobile Intelligence, a Seattle-based research group that tracks and measures consumer use, show Americans are now spending an average of 4.7 hours a day on their smartphones, not all of it mutually exclusive with completing other activities. Whether this will cause Americans to feel more or less fulfilled with our work/life balance remains to be seen. As Garg notes: “Our life’s activities are all intertwined.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes on work/life and workplace topics. Connect with her at BalanceGal@gmail.com or @balancegal.
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