Viewing time as money boosts stress, researcher says


People who perceive time as money are significantly more stressed than those who have a more fluid vision of time, according to new research by Thomas D. Dee II Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer Ph.D. ’72 at the Graduate School of Business.

More than a decade ago, Pfeffer noticed that his Stanford payroll designated an hourly wage based off the 40 hours he worked for 52 weeks a year. The realization began to nag at him, and he became constantly aware of the economic gain or loss of each hour of work.

In his recent research, Pfeffer found that his own experience has scientific backing. He and coauthor Dana Carney of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley recruited 104 subjects to work for two hours for a made-up company. Although each subject knew their overall pay for the two hours, half the subjects were asked to calculate their money-per-minute pay rate before the two hours began, while the other half were not.

The results were striking. Subjects who were aware of their per-minute payoff exhibited salivary cortisol levels around 25 percent higher than those who were not viewing the two hours in strict time-to-money terms; cortisol is linked to a variety of physical health issues. The more time-aware subjects also did not enjoy the two breaks the study provided, during which they were able to listen to music or view art, nearly as much as the other subjects.

“A rise of almost 25 percent [in cortisol levels] is a serious health consequence,” Pfeffer told Insights by Stanford Business. 

Pfeffer and Carney’s research builds on past work by M. Cathleen Kaveny, who studied unhappiness endemic to the lawyer community. She examined the common phenomenon of lawyers who enjoy high incomes and power but report low job satisfaction and even leave the profession. Kaveny found that many lawyers are constantly stressed by the idea of “billable minutes,” which bleeds into the rest of their lives so that they measure every experience — even spending time with family — as money gained or wasted.

According to Pfeffer, the American job industry overall has shifted toward a potentially stressful time-is-money mindset. Companies are now under pressure to pay closer attention to their environmental footprint, he says, but have yet to examine the unhealthy culture they perpetuate for workers.

Pfeffer also noted that people live much longer in places such as Spain and the Greek isle of Ikaria where, according to Pfeffer’s study, people regard time with more fluidity and have a stronger culture of socializing and relaxation.

“Every minute thinking about the value of your time is not very good,” Pfeffer said. “We live in a completely over-scheduled world, and that’s just not very healthy.”


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