U.S.A. Work Ethic Alive and Well

by Lynn McMillen
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The American work ethic has been a source of national pride for more than 200 years. In 2011, America’s workforce worked harder than ever, according to the American Time Use Survey (ATUS).

Produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ATUS Report measures the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as paid work, childcare, volunteering, and socializing. In her blog, Stack says 2011 ATUS data paints a picture of a nation working harder than ever, significantly exceeding the “traditional” 40-hour week, and working nearly as hard on weekends as on weekdays.

The workers among the survey population worked an average of 77 more minutes per week in 2011 than they did in 2010, although Stack points out that does not necessarily mean 77 minutes of productivity were added. At a time when unemployment rates are high, people with jobs tend to put in more work time in order to give the appearance of heightened commitment to their job—a job security strategy Stack says some business owners and managers may be taking advantage of, with debatable results.

“Keep in mind that working longer hours doesn’t guarantee increased workplace productivity,” Stack says. “A fearful employee is a productive employee; no one wants to lose their job in a down economy where it’s not certain you’ll find another one.

“So more employers are, once again, managing to squeeze a little more work out of their employees. It’ll be interesting to see whether this trend continues next year.”

Every year since 2003, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has compiled this annual survey that details how Americans over the age of 15 use their daily time. The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) offers a valuable glimpse into everything Americans do: the amount of time taken for sleep, rest and relaxation, and the number of hours worked on the average day. The 2011 results, released on June 22, 2012, come from interviews and surveys with 12,500 individuals.

The mission of the ATUS study is to develop a comprehensive understanding of how Americans use their time. In this latest study, statistics were collected for the first time on how much time Americans have devoted to “eldercare”—i.e., the amount of time spent caring for elderly individuals.

For business purposes, the category associated with work and related activities provides the most revealing data, Stack says, showing an increase in the average number of work hours Americans put in daily, reversing a trend observed the year before.

From a productivity standpoint, the ATUS study can be an important barometer on the qualities of American workforce habits during economic crunch times, and a way to measure actual productivity levels when people are working longer hours and taking less time for leisure activities.

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