I was kind of surprised to get my boss on the phone that morning, because executives spend 21 percent of their time at meetings, according to headhunters Robert Half International, and spend another 22 percent of their time reading or writing memos -- of which 40 percent are a waste of time (also according to Half). But the first time I rang, he picked up.
"Back ache costs U.S. employers 93 million work days and $10 million in compensation claims every year, says the Lehrman Back Center in Miami, Mr. Petersen," I told him. "Well, I'm going to be contributing to those figures today. I'm staying home with a sore back."
"I'm sorry to hear it," he said, "though I probably don't need to tell you that the $10 billion figure you cited only covers the direct loss to U.S. employers. The overall loss to society is $56 billion. So says Forbes."
I didn't know that. He let me digest it, then said:
"Joe, I hope you're being on the up-and-up about this. I've seen you stealing smokes in the company parking lot, and you, me and the Journal of the American Medical Association all know that smokers are twice as likely to call in sick as nonsmokers."
"No, Mr. Petersen, it's back ache."
"Maybe, but how did you get it? Did you fall down the stairs because you were bombed? Surely you've read the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that says alcohol/drug abuse is now costing employers $65 billion a year."
"Actually, those figures are from 1983," I corrected him. "And the situation has only worsened. A recent study by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment now puts that figure at a whopping $100 billion a year. But, no, booze has nothing to do with it. I jerked my back out of joint when I read my phone bill yesterday. It said that I'd made $6,789 in long-distance phone calls last month. I don't need to tell you what any New York-based firm that audits phone bills and collects overcharges on a contingency basis will tell you: that 80 percent of phone bills contain errors. Or maybe I'd had my credit card number stolen and been a victim of one of those scams The New York Times says are now costing U.S. phone companies $500 million a year."
Just then, the phone clicked dead. Probably one of those counterfeit items smuggled in from the Orient -- the kind that the U.S. International Trade Commission warned were costing the U.S. economy $20 billion a year. It made you feel impotent -- like 10 percent of American males, according to a Cleveland-based medical group. It almost made you feel like leaving the country and becoming one of those expatriate Americans the House Government Operations subcommittee said was cheating the U.S. Treasury out of $2 billion every tax-filing season.
When I redialed, my boss said: "I can't stay on the phone too long. Even as we speak, time thieves in this office may be adding to that $125 billion a year employers lose to employees taking overly long coffee breaks and doing their nails. Why, at this very moment, they could be inflating that $3 billion bill for unauthorized long-distance calls that the Small Business Administration claims is being made by untrustworthy employees. So get a doctor's note and route it to me."
"I will," I said, "but you'd better have the bookkeeper go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Ninety-eight percent of all medical bills contain phony charges, says Equifax Services, an Atlanta bill-auditing firm. And I'll tell you another thing: I wish that when I first hurt my back I'd gone straight to a hospital with a full-time trauma unit. My failure to do so could add to what the Washington Trauma Center describes as a $100 million annual trauma bill."
"Well, just try to take it easy," he told me. "If that back doesn't shape up, you'll be helping to swell U.S. firms' liability for future health care costs to somewhere in the $100 million to $2 billion range, according to The Conference Board."
"I'll bear that in mind, Mr. Petersen. And, hey, maybe one evening you could pop over to my house for dinner and leave half-eaten some of that $12 billion in food a University of Arizona study says we Americans waste each year. Or if that's not convenient,we could go out like all thosefolks that MRCA Information Services says skipped $40 billion worth of lunches last year and not eat lunch together."
"Sounds fabulous," he said. "But just remember when you stop by my office that if you can't find me it could be because Americans spend 32 percent of their time goofing off -- and I'm an American; or because 50 percent of all business meetings are a waste of time -- and I go to a lot of them; or because senior management wastes 4.2 percent of its time on office gossip (according to Management Recruiters) -- and I'm a senior manager.
"And one other thing: a survey by Robert Half International -- the old warhorses -- finds that one out of four Americans is leading an unhappy or an unsuccessful life because he made a mistake when he chose his occupation. If I'm not here when you drop by, it's because I decided I was one of them."
Joe Queenan is a writer who lives in Tarrytown, N.Y.