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Employees with Idle Time Can Be Detrimental to Organizations

Most organizations are concerned that their employees have too much work to do with so little time to do it. However, the opposite situation also arises. Some organizations or segments have a great deal of idle time in which employees cannot complete work tasks because there is limited work. Idle time can occur for various reasons including: slow periods in customer service-related jobs, technical issues, managers not distributing work in an efficient manner, not having all the information needed to complete a project, etc.

A recent article in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined the consequences of idle time at work. The researchers conducted various studies that not only examined the frequency and length of idle time, but also its impact on work pace or speed. The finding revealed that of all U.S. workers, 80% have experienced idle time. A little over 20% reported having idle time every day. The average amount of idle time experienced was 2 hours, 45 minutes within the past week. This equates to 7.4 billion hours of idle time in the U.S. annually and $100 billion paid for such time.

The researchers then examined the impact of idle time on work behavior—such as pacing of work. The researchers found that people with idle time work more slowly and take longer than normal to complete a task if they expect to have idle time before a deadline. This is called the “deadtime effect.” This contrasts with the “deadline effect,” in which work pace picks up prior to a deadline. The “deadtime” effect occurs because people associate idle time with negative experiences such as boredom or being perceived as lazy by others. The researchers were also interested in what would happen if people’s perceptions of idle time were not negative. They found that when people were allowed to do leisure activities during their idle time (e.g., surfing the internet), the deadtime effect on their pacing style was less.

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.