Americans Are Lying About How Much They Work

working too much

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.

More: How Workers Waste Time [Infographic]

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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Tyler Cheney

You know what I dislike about this "study". It is making it seem like people who work 80 hours a week are lying and actually working less. That is not the case with me. I did the numbers from my time sheets from last year, I averaged about 50 hours a week. Also even if someone does over estimate how much they are at work, the real importance of the numbers is that people are spending 10 hours a day at work every day. Many people are working 2 or 3 jobs, and barely surviving. Just the fact that I have to be trapped at work for a 14 hour shift takes a huge mental tole. I went in to work yesterday at 8 am and when I got off my shift at 10pm one of my friends mentioned how nice the weather was. My heart sank just a little bit as I realized I hadn't been outside for more than 10 minutes the whole shift. (I work at an assisted living home, in case you were wondering). That makes people depressed. Feeling like you are doing nothing but working to have food and a place to live is depressing. So lets give the working class some credit, because we deserve it. We work damn hard every day to make it by and I feel that is worthy of some praise instead of complaining that people embellish their hours worked. I will tell you what I don't embellish, lifting people in and out of wheelchairs all day, showering, dressing, feeding, getting medications, and entertaining mentally handicapped adults all day. That hard work is what the real working class does and I dislike the general tone in this article implying that we actually "work" less than we say. I literally break my back for my paycheck, and I would bet most people who work 80 hours a week or 2+ jobs would easily be able to show you the same if you doubt how much they actually work. Spend a day in someone else's shoes before you act like someone is lazy.

March 10 2013 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The other question I would ask ... "how much is everybody actually working?" For instance, I am at work, but, reading stories on AOL...not exactly part of my job description.

March 08 2013 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dasha Golubeva

I thought I'd share some more remarkable stats on the topic. According to our recent survey (, 87% of workers (from team members to business owner, +freelancers were among the respondents, too) said they overwork every week. Almost 40% said they typically overwork more than 5 hours every week. But what's most interesting - a third of overworking respondents said they don't feel overloaded and they're absolutely satisfied with their work-life balance! So, it looks like there are quite a lot of people for whom "overwork" doesn't mean "overload".

December 26 2012 at 3:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dasha Golubeva's comment
Tyler Cheney

I disagree with the idea you are promoting. Just because someone is happy or satisfied with their job or life does not mean they aren't overloaded or overworked. Tons of people are overworked and make it through despite it all. Quick example - I know someone who worked 3 jobs, took care of 4 children, and never took any welfare or aid while getting a masters degree. Then she paid off all of the debt that was left on her shoulders after her husband left her (and he became homeless so he didn't pay any child support). She was definitely over worked. But if you ask her today she would say she enjoyed the work she did, and wouldn't change a minute of it because she had a great career, a great family, and feels like she earned it all. Just because someone says they are happy does not mean that as a human being they aren't being over worked and underpaid (meaning they work most of their time, have little leisure time, and don't make enough to survive). Anyone who has worked 3 jobs or more at once while trying to take care of dependents without taking any welfare from government would tell anyone who came from a wealthy family, was given their opportunities, and had more advantages that they don't know what being "over worked" means.

March 10 2013 at 7:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The work-life balance calculation is really not accurate. After all, what is "life?" If you look at an 8 hr work day, you need to factor in at least a .5 hr lunch (or more) that you can't really squeeze any "life" into. Then when you consider the average person needs 45 minutes to get ready in the morning, and in many cases commute 45 minutes each way to and from work, then you start seeing the problem. You have 2 hrs and 15 minutes of prep and travel, combined with 8 hrs of work (10.25 hrs so far) and 1/2 hr of lunch totaling 10.75 hrs a day that is strictly work related on what is considered an 8 hr day.

Taking into consideration that most people need 8 hrs of sleep (even if they say they don't get it), you are up to 18.75 hrs a day. That is just over 78% of your day that is not "living." That leaves a whopping 5.25 hrs a day to eat dinner, study, clean the house, do the laundry, shop, pay bills, and supposedly have some down time too. That totals a massive 26.25 hrs per work week.

Okay, in all fairness, there is the weekend, but that doesn't make much difference when you consider all of the chores a typical person is responsible for. However, we will call it "free time" just to satisfy those that will be overly critical. So now we are working with 26.25hr (work wk) + 32hrs (weekend) = 58.25 free hrs per week which looks like 52% of your awake time is free. But when you take into consideration that during the week only 32% of your awake time is "free" you can see how things are out of whack when the author suggests that 12 hrs a day makes for a good w/l balance. By my numbers that would be 4 extra hrs a day = 7% free time per wk day and 34% free awake time incl weekends. No thanks!

October 25 2012 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Falyn Katz

Very interesting study. I wonder if the smaller less significant types of work, like how people read and reply to emails on their smartphones when they're in the bathroom, or half asleep are taken into account. These days it is hard for people to turn off and therefore the accuracy of these stats must be difficult to calculate. The advanced technology of iPhones, iPads, etc... allow us to be "always on." While I am only physically in my office for 40 hours a week, I would not be exaggerating to say I use my BlackBerry for work for at least an additional 10. I can appreciate that all people tend to exaggerate the numbers but maybe it's that they feel overwhelmed and thus a 50 hour week seems like an 80 hour week. Maybe a change of scenery, or a new career might be an option needed to explore. Check out great opportunities at, you never know it could help you get back a couple of those much needed hours each week!

October 23 2012 at 3:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How about a 100 hour work week? There are plenty of mothers who work 50 hour works weeks and come home and work an additional 50+ hours. Fact.

October 23 2012 at 11:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yes, one can keep tracking from here till the end of their career or current job. Did these researchers ever bother to measure the effectiveness of these long working hours? If the effectiveness went up then it proves that the management is understaffed and exploiting the workforce (the ones on salary). If most of them are hourly paid, then they are probably paying them overtime and someone is justifying the need for the over time. In any case when the effectiveness doesn't increase then it is actually a decrease and loss to the business as these hours could have been utilized for something else that should have been productive. So what is the point in discussing overtime, under-time when the value hasn't been addressed yet? Serves the great purpose of an article to be published and nothing more.

October 22 2012 at 6:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There's a start up for that! Why guess when you can prove, track, and optimize your hours!

October 22 2012 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There's ALWAYS a start up for that... Why speculate when you can just track it!

October 22 2012 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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