Workus interruptus.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
March 16 2006 12:06 PM

Workus Interruptus

Sure, take a break—and help cost the U.S. economy $588 billion.

While writing the second draft of this article, my telephone rang. I didn't answer it, but I took a few seconds to check caller ID and think about it. Then it took me a few minutes to get back on track. This interaction—three minutes out of my workday—supposedly cost the U.S. economy about a buck.

"Workplace interruptions" like that phone call slice $588 billion a year from the national economy, according to a widely quoted figure that comes from the New York consulting firm Basex. If American workers could work without interruption, the country would apparently be able to pay off this year's record $400 billion federal budget deficit and still have enough cash left over to mail every U.S. citizen a check for $635.71.

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Except, of course, that Basex's estimate—like just about every other estimate you see that's followed by the phrase "costs the U.S. economy"—is largely bogus.

Time magazine explained how these costs are calculated when it published the $588 billion figure in January. Using Bureau of Labor statistics data from 2005, Basex estimated that "knowledge workers" earn an average of $21 an hour. Then, based on online surveys and about 200 follow-up phone interviews, Basex concluded that these knowledge workers spend an average 2.1 hours each day fielding interruptions from e-mail messages, phone calls, instant messages, chatty co-workers, and so on. Included is the time workers spend "recovering"—getting back to what they were doing in the first place.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts 56 million knowledge workers in the United States, says Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst for Basex. Rounding down a bit, Basex estimated that each worker is "losing" to interruptions 10 hours a week, or 500 hours a year. The cost per year for the average knowledge worker: $10,500. Multiply by 56 million, and you get to $588 billion.

So, if we eliminated workplace interruptions, I asked Spira, would the companies we work for boost profits? Would we all get big raises? Not so much, Spira admitted. "The U.S. economy wouldn't grow by $588 billion if we got rid of these interruptions," he said. "We put it this way to illustrate that managers don't really know how to manage."

It's true that fewer interruptions might give employees more time to debug software, seek new business from important clients, or write more articles. But that time hole is no gold-spinning Sutter's Mill.

The point is that the oft-used phrase "costs the U.S. economy" is disturbingly vague and rarely accurate. Spira told me that his figure often gets cited without question. What other workplace-related issues are supposedly draining our national bank account? Here's a list based on a quick Nexis search.

Cost to the U.S. economy of annoying co-worker behavior: $300 billion.

Cost of negativity: $300 billion.

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