There's a paradox at the heart of American business culture. While more and more of us describe ourselves as 'slammed' and tell pollsters that work-life balance is increasing difficult to achieve, scientific time use studies reveal that Americans actually aren't all that busy.

One respected survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, found Americans are sleeping more, watching more TV, and working on average only a moderate 42 hours a week.

What's going on?

A lot of commentators have stressed cultural factors (more on that later), but based on a new survey by project management software company Workfront, there may be another contributing factor - when it comes to feeling rushed, how we work may be as big a problem as how much we work.

The incredible shrinking workday

The latest of edition of Workfront's annual "U.S. State of Enterprise Work Report" surveyed more than 600 knowledge workers at larger companies. The results reveal one startling change from last year's report. In 2015, workers estimated that they spent just 46 percent of their days on their actual job duties, which sounds pretty bad already. But things were even more discouraging this year: respondents in 2016 claimed just 39 percent of their workdays are dedicated to actual job tasks.

What's taking up the rest of their time? Top answers included status reports for management, email, and wasteful meetings.

What does this boil down to? Hours available for real productivity are being squeezed out by busy work, over-management and the endless pinging of our inboxes. Employees are effectively being asked to accomplish the same job in fewer hours. No wonder we all feel like we're perpetually time-crunched.

That, or you're just showing off.

Workfront's survey is an interesting bit of evidence that at least some of America's "overwhelm epidemic" is down to increasingly inefficient use of work hours, but it's important to point out that there are almost certainly other trends at play here too.

As a host of thoughtful commentators have explained, in recent years when un- or underemployment was a threat for much of the workforce, being busy (or at least looking busy) was effectively a status symbol, a way of subtly bragging that your career was humming and your time was much in demand.

While tech- and management-driven inefficiency is almost certainly a factor to our pervasive sense of excessive "busyness", there's no way to honestly discuss the problem without out also highlighting these cultural factors. Busyness is, in essence, trendy at the moment.

That doesn't mean that Workfront isn't also right though, and that your employees are probably seeing a greater and greater slice of their day getting eaten up by pointless busy work.

What percentage of your day is spent on your actual job duties? Is that number going up or down?

Published on: Nov 1, 2016