In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour working week within a century. Just over two decades later, a fresh-faced vice-president called Richard Nixon opined that by 1990, Americans would retire at the age of 38. And yet somehow, despite all the gadgets and gizmos that were supposed to set us free from drudgery – dishwashers, disposable nappies, Skype – many people in the developed world now feel they are working harder than ever.

Brigid Schulte calls this “the overwhelm”. Her engaging book – which is by turns a popular science explainer, self-help guide and subtle feminist polemic – aims to discover why some of us feel there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Juggling family and career and feeling guilty about neglecting both, she is “scattered, fragmented, exhausted”. Not only is she doing too much; she feels she should always be doing more.

It’s a common sentiment, particularly among working mothers; I recently sat in a room full of high-profile women in the media, discussing how they made it to the top. The answer, again and again: working part time when their children were young, and in one case, having a stay-at-home husband. They were proof you couldn’t “have it all”, if that meant working 60 hours a week and raising a young family. “With work, if it had been all or nothing, I would have chosen nothing,” said one.

That is Schulte’s diagnosis, too: by far the most leisure-time-starved group in society are mothers (particularly single mothers). It took decades for researchers to realise this, because the – male-dominated, obviously – discipline initially deemed childcare and housework to be leisure. This isn’t a book that hammers you with its feminist credentials, but there is an unavoidably gendered aspect to our ideas of what constitutes “real work”, even though you’d be hard-pressed to argue a screaming toddler is the easy option compared with piddling round with Microsoft Excel.

But even as more women work full-time outside the home, our attachment to traditional gender roles is harder to shake. Mothers still do far housework and childcare than fathers, even when both parents work – and dads’ time with their kids is often in the company of their partner, making them the “helping” parent, or the “fun” parent. Mums get to be the “supervisory parent”, and therefore can’t ever really relax. (In gay couples, the roles are much more likely to be equitably shared.) Such women experience free time in tiny gobbets, all the while hoping there isn’t anything important in their stack of unread emails, and that odd smell isn’t the cat being sick under the stairs again.

Fighting the overwhelm means identifying the problem, and there are three villains in this book: our jobs, our expectations and ourselves. Give a small cheer here if you live in Europe, because it turns out that America really, really hates its citizens and wants them to be unhappy. “The US is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers paid time off,” writes Schulte. “Nearly one-quarter of all American workers get no paid vacation, most of them low-wage and part-time workers.” Oh, and don’t expect any paid maternity leave either; there is no legal requirement to offer it. All this is a legacy of the religious right’s dominance in the 1970s, when firebrands like Pat Buchanan decided that nurseries were probably a plot to indoctrinate children and make them into tiny Commies. Schulte gazes longingly to Scandinavia, with its family-friendly policies, but the US situation sounds so bad I even felt a twang of pride in good old Blighty.

The other culprit identified here is a construct Schulte calls the “ideal worker”. The ideal worker is the perfect capitalist machine part, never seizing up or breaking down, always ready for overtime or foreign travel, never missing a day to look after a sick child or parent. Many businesses are in the grip of “presenteeism”, imagining that there is a perfect correlation between time spent with bum on office chair and productivity. There isn’t: research shows most people can only do eight hours of quality work a day. After that, they are just desk meat, surreptitiously playing Solitaire in a browser window or daydreaming about dinner. This macho long-hours culture hurts men just as much as women: when new dads ask for flexible working, they get burned both by the assumption they’re not dedicated to the job and the assumption they are big old Girlie Men.

We can’t blame everything on heartless employers, though. The relatively affluent have to take some responsibility for worshipping at the Altar of Overwork, an attitude Schulte calls “busier than thou”. Just as having a tan became a status symbol once it denoted that you could afford foreign holidays, rather than suggesting you laboured in a field, so being overwhelmed is a badge of honour for middle-class professionals. Oh, between Jonny’s clarinet lessons and my Mandarin classes and Steve getting promoted to partner, I don’t have a minute to myself, they trill. Having no free time makes the point you don’t just have a job. You have a career. 

Schulte’s prescription is simple: decide whether you love the bragging rights of being busy enough to live in a whirlwind. If you don’t, maybe leave the clarinet unmolested and the boxercise class undone.  As for housework, one time researcher’s message to women is refreshingly simple: be a slattern. “Do you have to be able to do open-heart surgery on the kitchen floor?” he asks.

This book’s strength is mixing research and anecdote in lively, accessible way, with a reporter’s eye for detail. I underlined a passage about “establishing metrics to measure success and feedback loops to course-correct” to remind me just how refreshingly little handwavy mumbo-jumbo there is elsewhere.

The obvious criticism is that Schulte’s message speaks largely to uptight overachievers in creative fields, and being told to lobby for a four-day week or a 4pm hometime won’t cut much ice if you’re on minimum wage or a zero-hours contract. (The author does acknowledge that the figure for average working hours is misleading because it blurs the gulf between the crazy-busy top of the labour market and the under-employed bottom.)

But of course, a book like this can’t hope to tackle every aspect of such a complex subject, and even if it did, no one would have time to read the result. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.