Employees Regularly Exaggerate Work Hours

While it may seem like you’ve been plugging away for countless hours behind the office desk or at the store register, a recent study suggests you actually may not be working as long as you think you are.

According to study by John P. Robinson for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans have a habit of exaggerating how many hours they work in an average week by 5 to 10 percent.

The study, completed in 2011 and picked up by the “Harvard Business Review” this month, measured the discrepancy between how many hours people estimated they worked against an actual time-activity diary they kept for the study.

Most Employees Overestimate Work Hours

When asked to recall how many hours they spent working in a given week, most study respondents had a tendency to overestimate the time they spent at their jobs working. Researchers suggest this exaggeration of hours worked was either the result of a faulty memory or an attempt to sound like hard-working and productive employees – or maybe a little of both.

People who said they spent 40 hours a week hard at work, for example, were shown in the study to have worked closer to 37 hours. Those who typically worked a longer week, such as estimating 75 hours, were found to have worked closer to the 50-hour mark, which is an overestimate of 50 percent.  The average U.S. workweek, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was 34.5 hours in September.

In contrast, the study showed those who worked under 25 hours per week actually underestimated their hours.

While the information garnered from the study applied mainly to hourly workers who manually reported their time, researchers say full-time exempt workers struggled with the same overstatement issue. It is believed they, too, exaggerated their hours because of faulty memory and/or an effort to seem industrious and committed to their jobs.

Global Overestimates

The Bureau of Labor Statistics study revealed the mental miscalculation of working hours is not limited to Americans. Two of the authors of the study, Robinson and Jonathan Gershuny, also found regular over-reporting of paid work hours in 10 other Western countries. Just like the U.S., diary work hours were significantly lower than what the workers estimated. Recent diary studies in Russia, Japan and China had similar results.

It seems the overstatement of hourly effort in the workplace also applies to work done around the home. A 1998-2001 national diary study published in the Labor Department journal revealed people are just as likely to overvalue the amount of time spent on housework such as cooking and cleaning.

For example, the report showed when men were asked to approximate the number of hours spent on housework per week they said 23 hours. The time diary, however, revealed they actually spent less than half that time on housework, a total of 10 hours per week. Women also overstated the time spent on housework, an actual 17 hours worked versus 32 estimated.

Whether in the paid workplace or at home cooking and cleaning, according to the study, most people have a tendency to overestimate how long they are actually working. Workers could then overestimate how much spending money they have, exacerbating debt problems.

Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it seven years ago, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering college and professional sports, which are the fantasy worlds of finance. His work has been published by the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, among others. His interest in sports has waned some, but his interest in never reaching for his wallet is as passionate as ever. Bill can be reached at bfay@debt.org.

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    1. Chun, J. (2012, October 22). Hourly Workers Lie About How Much They Work. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/19/hourly-workers-lie_n_1986478.html
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    3. Rampell, C. (2012, October 19). You Don’t Work as Hard as You Say You Do. New York Times. Retrieved from http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/you-dont-work-as-hard-as-you-say-you-do/
    4. Ouimet, M. (2012, October 19). The 60-Hour Workweek Is a Myth. Inc. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/maeghan-ouimet/the-60-hour-work-week-is-a-myth.html
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