How Much Time You Really Waste At Work

February 5th 2016

Laura Donovan

Though Americans tend to put in long hours at the office, this doesn't necessarily mean we're working the entire day. Whether we're texting, trolling through social media or laughing at cat videos, there's no shortage of opportunities to tune out for a little.

Even with distractions aplenty, science finds that we might not be wasting as much time as we think.

A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the average American worker spends roughly 34 minutes a day not working. Hey, that doesn't sound too horrible at all. And when researchers Michael Burda, Katie Genadek and Daniel Hamermersh cut out responses from people who said they apparently waste zero time in the day (as those people were likely dishonest) the amount of non-working time increased to 50 minutes per day. They took data from the American Time Use Survey, which used self-reported responses.

With some simple math, you could calculate that people who claim to work nine hours a day are probably working around seven.

The study also found that the more someone worked, the more they slacked off — but only those with workweeks under 42 hours. People working more than that reported wasting less time on the job. When you work longer and have a hefty to-do list, it's likely that you'll buckle down and focus, instead of checking Instagram.

Though this research probably makes everyone feel a little better about their work habits, it's possible the time people spent not working is underreported. As a practice, self-reporting can be slightly flawed as people (like those who claimed not to waste any time) may be misjudging their efforts. The study also used data from 2003-2012, so it's also possible that people were wasting less time at work for fear of losing their job during the recession. The researchers note that messing around at work is actually a privilege that indicates more secure economic times.

Why breaks during work are still a good thing

Though it seems most of us have a pretty good work/break balance, if you're not giving yourself any time to tune out, definitely reconsider. Research shows that taking a break can boost energy before diving back into responsibilities, helping you knock them off more efficiently. Last September, a Baylor University study found that frequent short breaks can greatly refresh and recharge employees during the day.

“Unlike your cell phone, which popular wisdom tells us should be depleted to zero percent before you charge it fully to 100 percent, people instead need to charge more frequently throughout the day,” study co-author Emily Hunter said in a release.

RELATED: How to Keep Your Sanity When You Work From Home

Hunter also found that certain breaks are actually better than other. In general, shorter and more frequent pauses, and those that include things employees actually like to do, hiked up performance and reduced burnout. Employees who made time to switch off also experienced less headaches, eyestrain and lower back pain. Surprisingly, "better" breaks can also include work-related responsibilities if a worker really enjoys them.

“Finding something on your break that you prefer to do – something that’s not given to you or assigned to you – are the kinds of activities that are going to make your breaks much more restful, provide better recovery and help you come back to work stronger,” Hunter said.