The true imbalance in employee “work-life balance”

How much free time an employee working 40 hours a week really has

Alternative title: How much free time does a “40 hour work week” white collar employee actually have? The short answer is not nearly as much as you think. Companies often boast about “work-life balance”, commonly described as working 40 hours (+/- 5 hours) a week, which the media gladly slurps up and parrots to make everyone feel better, and many people blindly believe and celebrate (see: your LinkedIn news feed).

That’s right, the 100-year-old concept of “the 8 hour work day” is still the widespread norm today and the number of jobs worldwide continues to grow with population, despite technology and automation being at an all-time high, combined with numerous predictions from the past on the decline of hours worked and total jobs as the world became more developed and modern (never happened), along with studies showing 40 hours a week is unnecessary and can be outright unhealthy.

The average person doesn’t talk about this either, because:

  • It’s socially unacceptable to talk about how being at the office (where you may or may not actually be doing work), for at least 1/3 of your waking hours, is a soul-sucking routine you’re forced to perform and that you may or may not enjoy, because bills and money.
  • Also, people who dare complain, about anything in general, in today’s society are frequently shot down and written off as “too negative”. Depending on who you know, they may also avoid you like the plague.
  • If they do complain, many a time they chalk it up to a “bad company” and the next one will be better (sorry to be a party-pooper, but it usually isn’t, and even if it’s actually better, it won’t be too much so. Am I being too negative here? I should call my PR firm…)
  • If they don’t complain, they’re probably blissfully unaware or have accepted it as the way life. You will be aware of which category they fall under, because those in the latter group will metaphorically plug their fingers in their ears while screaming “LALALALA” by attempting to diffuse your argument with “that’s just life!”

Let the calculations begin (no Math PhD required)

With the introduction out of the way, we’ll save that debate on the necessity of jobs for another time (or you can also read this great book, aptly named Bullshit Jobs, on why a lot of “work” we have today is straight up garbage and redundant), let’s jump into why work-life balance isn’t what it seems.

Math? Don’t be intimidated: all calculations will be spoon-fed in this article. We begin with the number of hours we have in a week: 168, that’s 24 hours a day x 7 days a week.

Waking time

The average person needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night (especially those aged 20-50, coincidentally the same people who are likely to be working a job). Far too many people (and I’m sure you know a few) think they’re some kind of Superman or Wonder Woman who only needs to get by with 5 or 6 hours of sleep because they’ve done that for weeks or months. The truth is, very few outliers in society can truly get by with 6 hours, or less, of sleep and studies show people deprived of sleep are also the least likely to realize their own state of sleep deprivation.

You might be able to pull that off for weeks on end, but eventually the lack of sleep will catch up. In the best case scenario, you realize your piled up levels of excessive tiredness, may or may not fall sick, and sleep it off (something like 12 hours of sleep per night) for a few days. I’ve seen the worst case where people outright faint at work and paramedics have to be called – a scenario commonly tied with working and known as “burnout”.

Personally, I need my full 8 hours of sleep, and I’ve tested this completely non-scientifically through self-reflection and diagnosis. I can function fine with the occasional 7 hour day here and there, but it’s not optimal. I’ve also tried 7.5 hours but I can still feel I’m not quite there if I keep that up for sustained periods of time. 8 hours a night, multiplied by 7 days = 56 hours.

168 minus 56. Remaining time when we’re awake per week: 112 hours.

Time at work

Let’s preface this section with what constitutes “working”. For example, you have a full-time job as an employee and your typical day looks like this: 4 hours of actually working (creating reports, slide decks, meetings, whatever you do), 2 hours of non-work related chatting (with colleagues, the barista at the cafe, your kids on the phone, etc.), 3 hours surfing the internet for non-work purposes (shopping, social media, etc.), 1 hour lunch, 30 minutes coffee break.

  • Any time you have to be at the office (or equivalent, such as customer premises), while you’re performing the above activities, all that time counts as “work” because you have to be physically present at a location that you wouldn’t be at otherwise. In the above example, the time you spent working is 10.5 hours (4+2+3+1+0.5)
  • If you’re allowed to be anywhere you want while working (e.g. at home, in a cafe), then only the time you spent on actual work counts. In the above example, the time you spent working is 4 hours. This is due to the freedom of swapping out the remaining time for other activities that are not possible when you’re forced to be at a set location such as a woodworking project to make DIY kitchen cabinets, playing tennis, walking the dog.
  • The freedom in the 2nd case is what many employers strive to prevent their indentured slaves employees from having by mandating their physical presence on company premises for most of the day, 5 days a week.

The life of a white collar employee is commonly tied to the so-called 40 hour work week. But is it actually 40 hours? Here are several types of work situations that typically exist:

  1. In the best case scenario, you have either A) full-control over how much time you spend working by having partial or complete ability to work away from company premises (also known as, work from home, WFH, remote employee, etc) or B) the ability to be at the office and work less than 40 hours a week including lunch time while receiving full-time compensation and not having any “homework”.
  2. In a good scenario, you have a literal “9 to 5” job. 8 hours a day at the office, and that includes lunch time.
  3. Most commonly, you have to be at work 8 hours a day but lunch time is excluded. Lunch time is usually set at 1 hour. And let’s face it, even in the “fastest” scenario where you bring in your own lunch, it’s going to take you at least 15 minutes to eat (it’s not healthy to choke down your food) and you have to factor in preparation time, usually another 15 minutes.
  4. A worse but still incredibly common scenario is having to be at work for up to 9-10 hours a day, excluding lunch time.
  5. A terrible situation would be having to be at work upwards of 10 hours a day, excluding lunch (and dinner) time.

Most people around the world fall under Categories 3 and 4. And we will go off-topic for one sentence for those with a Category 5 job: Unless you have an amazing salary (e.g. your savings rate exceeds 100,000 USD a year after deducting taxes and all living expenses, in any country), do yourself a favor and switch jobs.

We’ll have some Positive Vibes here and peg time spent working at 9 hours a day (Category 3: 8 hours plus 1 hour lunch time). That’s 45 hours a week.

Remaining time after deducting time at work: 67 hours.

Routines related to work and commuting

When you read “45 hours a week” at the end of the last section, you probably thought – hm, that’s not low but within standard deviation of the 40 hour week, so not bad, right? Wrong.

The time and financial expenses spent on activities related to work are often overlooked by many people and not taken into account by any company on the planet (which is extremely unfair). These activities are typically:

  • Commuting to and from work, because you would not have to deliberately spend time driving or sitting in a bus, train or plane if you didn’t have to get to work. You could argue that everyone needs to eat lunch and that’s why it isn’t counted in your “8 hours a day” yet somehow this time/financial expense that is directly linked to having a job is excluded from calculations. The average reasonable commute, in my opinion, is 30-45 minutes each way. Or 60-90 minutes per day.
  • Getting ready for work, which usually encompasses everything surrounding “not looking like crap in order to be professional” (ladies putting on make-up, guys doing their hair). This is optional on the surface but socially-mandated since people judge one another based on looks.
  • Unwinding from work and the commute is also a very real thing that’s often overlooked. Knowledge-based white collar work can take a toll on our physical form from both brain usage and posture while working. Even if you have a job with 1 hour of actual work and 7 hours of looking busy, all that acting can be tiresome.

Let’s give the 2nd and 3rd items a conservative, combined pool of 30 minutes per day. That’s 2.5 hours per week plus 5 to 7.5 hours for commuting.

Remaining time after preparing for, unwinding from, and getting to and from work: 57 to 59.5 hours.

Everyday life chores

Nearly a thousand words later, we can finally stop talking about work and go through personal but necessary tasks which take up around 19 hours a week:

  • 7 hours a week: Eating breakfast and dinner, at 30 minutes each
  • 7 hours a week: Food preparation, plus personal hygiene (showers, toilet time)
  • 3 hours a week: Household chores such as cleaning and doing laundry
  • 2 hours a week: Grocery shopping (including travel time)

Remaining free time: 38 to 40.5 hours.

Not as balanced as you think

So assuming you have an “average” employee job, you’re going to be spending a total of 52.5 to 55 hours a week on it: time spent at work, commuting and related routines that would otherwise not exist. This is roughly half of the life we spend awake (56 hours is 1/2 of 112 hours per week, the number we derived after we deduct 8 hours of daily sleep).

So we have the other half dedicated to “life”. But due to deductions from everyday life chores, this results in a net amount of 38 to 40.5 hours of actual free time. From this we can derive the first of 2 conclusions: we don’t have as much free time as we think.

Sorry, free time isn’t calculated like 168 hours a week, minus 56 hours sleep, minus 40 hours week; 72 hours free time wow!

But 56 hours for work-related activities, 56 hours for life-related activities, and 40 hours actual free time versus 40 hours actual work, and we haven’t factored in public holidays and paid vacation, that’s a win for the employee, right?!

The problem of start-stop momentum and activity start-up time

True, but that balance is also heavily tilted so you spend more time on the “work” side than “life” on weekdays, but the other way around during weekends. Put another way, work owns most of your life five days of the week, while you’re only in full control of the other two.

This results in more wasted free time due to start-up time, which is the time it takes warming up (“getting in the zone”, if you will) before actually being productive at an activity, and repeatedly stopping and restarting on weekdays.

For instance, let’s say you’re working on a project that you hope to launch as your side business. This might be something you have to do over the course of weeks. You dedicate 20 hours a week to work on it (kind of like a part-time job) but can only work 6 hours (plus breaks) in one sitting, with a 1 hour start-up time. Effectively taking 7+ hours a day.

You could distribute that over 3 days and only lose 3 hours of time (3×1 hour) getting into the zone. However, since weekends only have 2 days, you’re forced to distribute over 4 days (2 weekdays + Saturday and Sunday). This means you now have to waste an additional hour to accomplish the same thing.

An hour is 2.5% of your actual free time. If you had a monthly income of 5,000 COD (Corgi Dollars) after taxes, you wouldn’t spend 2.5% of it (125 COD) on a really expensive dinner without flinching, would you?

Minimizing “start-stop” instances is exactly why you try to:

  • Get a haircut, before going to get your groceries, before stopping to buy food to go – all in one outing, instead of doing each thing separately (reduces time spent going out and going home again).
  • Go for a run, then immediately lift weights at the gym or go to a yoga class (so you don’t have get ready in your workout clothes and then take a shower, twice)
  • Line up job interviews at a far-away place so they’re all in the same week, even if each and every company offers to pay airfare and accommodation (to save on repeatedly traveling, jet lag and preparation)

Prime time

That purported work-life balance also doesn’t account for “work” blocking off the best part of the day, which consists of most (if not all) the daylight hours and the only time when places like banks, post offices, doctors’ offices and the like are open.

The “life” part of the equation gets the short end of the stick: crappy/non-ideal hours when many essential service providers are closed and it’s dark and/or cold, so you can’t go out for a picnic at 7am when you have to get ready for work. Also you’re more likely to be exhausted at an hour that’s too early or after coming back from work so it takes forever to do things compared to during prime time.

Simply put, you have 104 days per year with prime time to yourself (Saturdays and Sundays multiplied by 52 weeks in a year) plus another 25-30 days of combined annual leave and public vacation (in Malaysia, the average is 26 days a year and in Germany, it’s 29 days a year).

This gives you an average of 132 days with prime time per year. For the remaining 233 days, you’re pretty much going to spend the best hours of each one of those days under the fluorescent lamps of your company. Fun!

More tasks related to “work” life

We also haven’t factored in external tasks such as filing taxes and applying for jobs either. Filing taxes is a once-a-year deal which should take 6 hours or so to prepare, depending on country and provided you’re not in an employee with a complex tax case (which is rare).

Job hunting is a real time sink though – from experience, it takes 2-3 hours per job application with a semi-customized cover letter and minimal forms, 4 hours or more if there’s a stupid application tracking system (ATS) requiring everything from your resume to be copied, pasted and formatted or if writing a cover letter from scratch.

You’ll likely have to apply to at least 15 jobs, which can consume 30 to 60 hours of your time. Scale this number upwards based on how many applications you need to send out before landing at least one job offer (and ideally you’d like two, for leverage in salary negotiations). And multiply based on how many times you job hop in your lifetime.


Final nitpick before we conclude. Full-time jobs are also paid based on “40 hours a week”, not the 52.5 to 55 actual hours described above. And unless you’re in a very generous (usually large and profitable) company and/or in a very high-level position, chances are you’re not getting compensated for owning a car or monthly public transportation pass, that you would otherwise not need if you were not working. This is more a financial discussion than time, but shows the perspective of companies on what work-life balance means for them.

Net free time: Work-life imbalance

Now say “work-life balance” again, with a straight face, in a non-sarcastic manner.

Remember that this entire situation around time is also a zero-sum game, where any extra time you spend on the “work” pool (remember it doesn’t have to be time spent in the office or actually working, it could also be additional time in commuting to work) gets deducted from your “life” pool that is free time.

For the less fortunate who are working 9 or 10 hours a day (45-50 hours a week) or have a longer commute that’s over an hour long, the zero-sum game means the imbalance becomes even more pronounce at 60-ish hours “work”, 52-ish hours “life” (or 35 hours actual free time).

The other conclusion that we’ll end with is the definition of work-life balance is right now skewed heavily in favor of companies, who completely ignore routines that are indirectly necessary for work while trumpeting “40 hours a week, YAY!” In other words, for the employee, it’s a bullshit concept where you get the crappy end of the deal.

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