U.S. workers plug in when they want to unwind

By Barbara Rose
Tribune staff reporter

September 19, 2004

Time: There never is enough.

Yet Americans in the prime of their working lives find nearly three hours on an average weekday to relax--often in front of a television, according to a new government study.

Call them hard-working but reasonably well-rested couch potatoes. They log more than eight hours on the job and 7 1/2 hours sleeping.

Just as many suspected, working women spend about twice as much time as working men on household chores and caring for children and others. Women with children and full-time jobs log the most: nearly three hours on weekdays.

Men spend more time at work and more time on leisure and sports.

These and many other tidbits about full-time workers between the ages of 25 and 54 are pulled from a much broader survey of American time use released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The research offers a glimpse of how work fits into American lives.

American workers are not a reflective lot, nor are they particularly sociable. Full-time workers ages 25 to 54 spend less than 15 minutes "relaxing and thinking" on an average weekday. About 20 minutes of their precious leisure goes to "socializing and communicating."

Few are bookworms or workout fanatics: They average about 10 minutes reading and the same for sports and exercise--a number skewed by the fact that many report no exercise at all.

So where does their leisure go? They are glued to the tube for 1 1/2 hours on an average weekday and more than two hours on weekends.

Leisurely dining is out, as is the traditional lunch "hour." They gulp their food or eat while doing something else. (How else to explain devoting little more than one hour to eating and drinking?)

Their spiritual lives get short shrift: less than two minutes on weekdays, expanding to about 15 minutes on weekends.

The information was collected last year in interviews with 21,000 men and women, working and non-working, married and not, over the age of 15. They were asked to account for every hour of a single 24-hour period, reporting their primary activity during that time slot. That means if they were eating and watching TV, they had to pick one.

The bureau's ongoing research will shed light on such topics as household division of labor and quality of life issues such as whether Americans are becoming more isolated.

"The survey gives us the first continuous data on the timing of work and where work is done," said study project manager Diane Herz. "What days of the week are people working and what shifts? Where are they working--at a job site, at home or in a cafe? What are the tradeoffs associated with working?"

At least 50 countries and the Universities of Michigan and Maryland have conducted time-use studies, but the bureau's report is the largest and the only continuous effort, officials said.

Some findings for the broad population include:

Americans 15 and older sleep an average 8.6 hours. No surprise: Teenagers, retirees and non-workers sleep longer than working people.

Nearly everyone reported some leisure activity on an average day. Television was the most popular option, accounting for half of all leisure time.

Only 17 percent of the population reported doing some sports or exercise. Those who did devoted 1.7 hours.

One trend to watch: bringing work home. One in five employed people reported doing some work at home on days when they worked. The figure includes self-employed workers, who represent less than 10 percent of the working population.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune