Workplace Idleness Costs Companies $100 Billion Annually

February 16, 2018

Although Americans are known for spending a lot of time at their jobs, they’re not always working during those long hours behind a desk. In fact, a recent Harvard study found that 78 percent of surveyed employees experienced some type of idleness at work. This isn’t referring to laziness or procrastination: “We are talking about time at work when employees are supposed to be working, and available to work, but they are unable to,” said Andrew Brodsky, co-author of the study. “With idle time, the organization is often hurt by it, and it’s not enjoyable for employees either.” All told, the researchers estimate that workplace idleness costs American companies $100 billion a year.

Idle time can arise when managers fail to distribute work properly, leaving staffers with nothing to do once they’ve finished their tasks. In other cases, companies like call centers will schedule more employees than they normally need if they’re expecting a busy period of activity. Sometimes that crunch never comes, however, leaving employees idle. The researchers found that this unintentional downtime can be just as stressful as overwork. After all, a busy day at your job or school at least seems to go by quickly as you jump from task to task. A day full of idleness, on the other hand, can stretch on like an eternity.

In order to measure this phenomenon, the researchers made participants engage in the exceedingly boring task of copying sentences word for word. They also removed distractions like smartphones and the Internet, ensuring that any participant who finished early would have to remain idle. As a result, many people intentionally slowed their work so they could avoid downtime, even though their task could be completed in just a few minutes. Along with making lots of mistakes, participants “dragged their feet as they got closer to the end of the task” as well, which the researchers named the “deadtime effect.” In a later experiment, though, the team overcame this obstacle by telling participants that they could surf the Internet whenever they finished. This led the researchers to conclude that employees work better when they’re judged on the tasks they complete rather than the total time they put in. “Managers should evaluate employees based on outcomes rather than hours spent working or seeming to work,” said Brodsky.

Questions:

  1. Why do you think idleness is so stressful for employees?
  2. What can companies do to prevent their staff from feeling the “deadtime effect?”

Source: Michael Blanding, “Having Nothing to Do at Work Costs US Companies $100 Billion Each Year,” Quartz, January 31, 2018.

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