Hey, Wait A Minute

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.

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.

Cost of disengaged employees: $256 to $363 billion.

Cost of spam: $22 billion.

Cost of product counterfeiting and copyright piracy: $600 billion.

Cost of movie pirating: $3 billion.

Cost of delays at U.S.-Canada border: $4.1 billion.

Cost of power disruptions: $100 billion.

These figures aren’t destined for any reputable economics textbook. To begin with, it’s hard to believe that workplace interruptions really do nearly eight times the damage of rising oil prices, which are said to cost the economy $75 billion. Then consider the double-dipping. No doubt some work “negativity” involves all those annoying co-workers. And when the power goes out, disengaged employees don’t even notice. Consider in addition that each of these costs has a corresponding economic payoff. Anti-spam efforts keep well-paid software engineers employed. Annoying co-workers have spawned a healthy market in noise-canceling headphones. There’s no standard method for smoothing out all the overlap and contradiction.

Often, though not invariably, “costs to the U.S. economy” are self-serving sums concocted by lobbyists, companies, and advocacy and trade groups in order to grab attention. Basex, for example, is a consulting company that—you guessed it—would love to help you cut down on all those pesky interruptions, for a fee.

That’s not to say there’s nothing at all to the hype, though. If I’d closed my office door and muted my phone, I’d have finished writing this 25 minutes ago. Which would have given me time to send a copy of the Natalie Portman rap to my buddy Andrew. Ah, I can annoy him with that tomorrow.