The Wasted Workday

Employees of large companies report spending more than half of their time at the office on emails, meetings, and tasks not laid out in job descriptions.

The average American spends a lot of time at the office. According to the American Time Use Survey, Americans spend 8.7 hours at work on an average work day. Each year, Americans work roughly 1,790 hours, which is just slightly higher than the OECD average.

But what happens during the 9 hours that are spent at the office? While every job includes some tasks that are not part of the job description, there's a discrepancy between a job titles and what workers spend their time doing at the office. How much time is spent at meetings or writing emails, and how much time is spent doing what workers perceive to be our main jobs?

A new survey from AtTask conducted by Harris Poll found that U.S. employees at large-sized companies (1000 employees or more) only spend 45 percent of their time on primary job duties. So what about the other 55 percent of the time? Their respondents reported spending 14 percent of their workweek on email (which is believable, as 91 percent reported that they use email to communicate with their team). The other 40 percent of their working hours were spent on meetings, administrative tasks, and "interruptions." So the most frustrating workdays are when all of the above prevent a worker from doing their jobs—and nothing gets done.

And that's not to mention the time spent not working at work: One survey reported that the average time spend doing private activities is 1.5 to three hours a day. ComScore reported that this Cyber Monday—despite it being a workday—was the heaviest online spending day in history at $2 billion. According to IBM Digital Analytics, 46 percent of Cyber Monday sales happened between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET.

Cyber Monday 2014 Sales by Hour

But is 100 percent productivity even possible, or healthy? The answer is probably no. Research shows that taking regular breaks from work improves creativity and productivity. A nap can also help. And meetings and emails? Inevitable, though better email and meeting habits could help. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed by AtTask reported that they thought meetings were the most wasteful parts of their workday—but standing meetings and data mining are here to help. Now if companies can come up with the right incentive scheme for those who email the entire directory to stop, less time would be wasted on that too. Perhaps what's needed is a position that exclusively involves email: Someone or something (software) to call out email abusers and keep everyone else in line too.