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How Much Time Do Employees Really Work?

The traditional eight-hour day may be more fable than reality.

One study found that the average employee spends less than three hours out of each eight-hour work period doing real work. Instead, they spend much of the day reading news (1 hour, 5 minutes), checking social media (44 minutes), discussing non-work-related topics with colleagues (40 minutes), etc. The study even found that workers spent an average of 26 minutes a day searching for new jobs!

Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has found that American workers at all levels (including executives) routinely overestimate the hours they work; and the more they work, the more they overestimate. For example, workers who say they work 75 hours per week tend to exaggerate by 25 hours.

These numbers likely horrify efficiency consultants and ambitious business owners. Efficiency experts usually try to minimize or eliminate “idle capacity” while coming as close to 100% worker utilization as possible. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs frequently believe that long hours are vital to success. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, once tweeted, “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

However, the problem might not actually be as bad as it seems at first glance.

Working more hours quickly hits a point of diminishing returns, says a Stanford University study of munitions factory workers. They found that the fatigue from working more hours results in reduced productivity and increased errors.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, studied the schedules of leading writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and others who have achieved success in their fields. He found that most were only productive for 4 or 5 hours a day. In general, these successful people would work in high-intensity bursts followed by long periods of downtime.

Similarly, Draugiem Group, a social networking company, conducted an internal time-tracking experiment and found that the most productive 10% of their workforce took, on average, 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work. Furthermore, those breaks were taken away from their desks. That adds up to over two hours away from their desk in a typical workday – yet these were the company’s most productive people.

And not all entrepreneurs agree with Musk. Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian argues that constant “hustling…has deleterious effects not just on your business but on your well-being.”

Every workplace is different. The key is to stay on top of employee experience and make whatever improvements make sense to facilitate productivity without pushing workers too hard.


CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with HR administration, benefits, payroll, and compliance. To learn more about our ability to create a strategic HR function in your business that drives business growth potential, contact us today.