8.6.09

THE NATURE OF OVERWORK. A Wall Street Journal columnist interrogates time allocation.
Summer is here again. It heralds the return of barbecues, white pants, barbecue-stained white pants and, for many workers, that perk known as Summer Fridays: half-days that allow everyone to start the weekend early.
Regular readers know where I stand on this: a half-day of work on Fridays will become a recruiting inducement long before some amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act mandates it, or a three-day weekend.

The columnist's focus is on whether people are really making weekends at weekends.

Heaven knows we need the time off -- or think we do. Over the past two decades of rapid technological deployment and globalization, it has become an article of faith among the professional set that we work sweatshop hours. Sociologist Juliet Schor started the rumor with her 1992 book, "The Overworked American," which featured horror stories of people checking their watches to know what day it was.

Then God created the BlackBerry and things got worse. In late 2005, Fortune's Jody Miller claimed that "the 60-hour weeks once thought to be the path to glory are now practically considered part-time." In late 2006, the Harvard Business Review followed up with an article on "the dangerous allure of the 70-hour workweek," calling jobs that required such labor the new standard for professionals. The authors featured one "Sudhir," a financial analyst who claimed to work 90-hour weeks during summertime, his "light" season.

It all depends on what the meaning of work is.

If you're watching "Talladega Nights" on a flight to a conference, are you working? Is reading the Taste page of The Wall Street Journal in your office work? Anyone claiming an 80-hour workweek is definitely putting both in the "yes" category -- though this mode of calculation is going to result in more generous estimates than an observer might tally.

The second reason people overestimate is that they discount exceptions that don't fit the mental pictures they create of themselves. If you work four 14-hour days, then quit after 8 hours on Fridays, you'd think a "usual" day was 14 hours, meaning that you work 70-hour weeks. But you don't. You work 64 -- maybe. You probably work less than 14 hours on holidays such as Memorial Day. Plus, odds are good that your 14-hour days feature some late arrivals, lunch breaks or phone calls to your spouse. Pretty soon we're back below 60. You might have worked on weekends. But here we tend to overestimate time devoted to small, repetitive tasks. People think they spend far more time washing dishes than they do. Likewise, if you pulled out your BlackBerry 10 times over the weekend, you might give yourself credit for several hours of work, even though each incidence took five minutes. Total time? Less than one hour, even though you feel as if you're in work mode 24/7.

The electronic shackles keep people in work mode all the time (there's probably a Laser race somewhere where a skipper checks in before the start sequence). They also keep people in the wrong kind of work mode, letting others dictate their tempo rather than thinking about the things they should be thinking about. And they keep the work force in a perpetual state of attention deficit. On the one hand, there are medications for easily distracted students (generally men). On the other hand there are workplace distractions aplenty, for men and women alike.

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