Organizations are often concerned that their employees have too much to do in too little time. However, the opposite situation—idle time—is rarely given attention. The term idle time is used to describe segments of time at work in which employees are involuntarily unable to proceed with their work tasks. This can be due to slow periods in customer service jobs, technical problems, a lack of necessary information to proceed with a project, or managers inefficiently distributing work, among other reasons.
CONSEQUENCES OF IDLE TIME AT WORK
Researchers conducted a series of studies to examine the frequency and length of idle time, and then determine its impact on work pace or speed. They found that almost 80% of U.S. workers experienced idle time, with just over 20% reporting they experienced it every day. For those that experienced idle time, they reported an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes of idle time within the past five workdays. Based on this information and U.S. Census data, this approximates to 7.4 billion hours of idle time in the U.S. each year, and $100 billion paid for idle time.
The authors then examined the impact of idle time on work behavior, specifically the pacing of work. Although workers tend to follow a pacing style based on the “deadline effect,” in which the work pace is picked up as a deadline approaches, the opposite effect was expected when workers anticipated idle time. The researchers termed this the “deadtime effect” to describe that when people expect idle time before a deadline, they slow their work pace as the deadline gets closer. This slowing of pace is called work stretching.
Through several experiments, they found that people do in fact work more slowly and take longer than normal to complete a task if they expect to have idle time before a deadline. This occurs because people associate idle time with negative experiences, such as boredom or being perceived by others as lazy. The researchers then considered what would happen if people did not perceive idle time as a bad thing. They found that when people were allowed to do leisure activities such as surfing the web, the deadtime effect on pacing style was reduced.
Despite the common concern of insufficient time to complete work tasks, organizations should also consider the consequences of “extra” idle time. It is a prevalent phenomenon across a variety of job types with substantial financial costs, and has a significant impact on employees’ pace of work. When workers expect that they will have idle time, they slow their work speed as the deadline approaches to fill up the extra time. This prevents the potential positive opportunities of idle time, such as handling an unexpected influx of work or participating in extra, helpful tasks.
A potential solution to prevent work stretching is to establish guidelines for enjoyable leisure activities to fill idle time, and to put in effort to remove the negative stigma associated with idle time. This research suggests that publicly acknowledging the existence of unavoidable idle time at work and addressing it may help reduce the deadtime effect, as well as promote employee wellbeing by filling idle time with leisure.
Brodsky, A. & Amabile, T. M. (2018). The Downside of Downtime: The Prevalence and Work Pacing Consequences of Idle Time at Work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(5), 496-512.