The Downside to Downtime at Work: There Are Significant Costs, Study Shows

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AUSTIN, Texas — Companies in the United States pay more than $100 billion in wages every year for time that employees spend idle, according to new research from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

In a nationally representative survey across a variety of occupational categories, McCombs Assistant Professor Andrew Brodsky and co-author Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School found that 78.1 percent of employees experience idle time at work, with 21.7 percent of employees experiencing idle time on a daily basis.

It is the first time researchers have quantitatively measured the prevalence and consequences of the period of involuntary downtime during which employees are unable to engage in normal work tasks for various reasons including waiting for customers or their manager has inefficiently assigned them work.

In another experiment, the researchers looked at the collateral consequences of downtime. They found that when workers expect idle time to follow a task, they engage in work-stretching, whereby their work pace declines and their task completion time increases. The results show a reverse of the deadline effect — working slowly at first and speeding up as a deadline approaches. This produced what the researchers refer to as a deadtime effect, where workers increasingly slow down as they progress through a task.

However, the findings also indicate that if an employee expects to be able to engage in leisure activities after a task, such as surfing the internet, the collateral work pace losses due to idle time decrease.

“Sanctioned leisure activities could potentially offer an incentive to finish a task quickly and could alter workers’ perceptions of idle time, making it seem more desirable,” Brodsky said.

Although much of idle time may be due to inefficiencies, a certain amount of idle time in the workday can be beneficial. It can enable employees to meet unexpected demands of their work tasks or fulfill any unexpected tasks that may arise. However, “If an employee’s natural tendencies are to stretch out their work in an attempt to reduce expected idle time, then that action would counteract any potential benefits of the planned idle time; it would simply not be available,” said Brodsky.

As previous research has proved, there are negative consequences from being seen as idle — even when downtime is outside of the employees’ control. Because of this, employees may slow their work pace and increase task completion time in order to avoid being seen as idle by managers.

“The consequences of idle time are costly, and because it’s in the employee’s best interest to appear busy, it’s likely that managers are not aware of the true extent of employee idle time,” Brodsky said. “Increased transparency and understanding of the amount of time employees spend idle at work can help managers optimize worker productivity and satisfaction.”

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