The danger of idle hands: What is the cost of under-worked employees?

The danger of idle hands: What is the cost of under-worked employees?

Idle time whilst at work costs US companies $100 billion a year in lost work hours and could be reducing employee job satisfaction and well-being, a new study by Harvard Business School has found.

Taking a representative sample from across 29 occupations, at least half of the respondents in each industry reported experiencing some kind of idle time, amounting to 78% of all respondents to the study.

“There is much more focus on the opposite—having too much to do in too little time … [w]e wanted to investigate idle time, in part, to raise everyone’s awareness of how widespread and pernicious it can be,” said Teresa Amabile, Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School and one of the report’s co-authors.

Idle time is distinguished from leisure time or procrastination as not being voluntary—where employees are available to work during work hours, yet are unable to do so.

The report suggests that such forced idleness can be just as painful as stress coming from overwork. “There is an optimal level of psychological arousal—we don’t want to be overstimulated, but we don’t want to be under-stimulated,” said Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin and the report’s second author.

Amongst the causes for involuntary idleness, the study identifies poor allocation of time by managers alongside equipment malfunction. Built-in excess capacity is also highlighted, where a company intentionally schedules more workers than required as insurance against unexpected periods of business.

Discussing strategies for dealing with the problem, the report’s authors advocate an approach which focuses less on the hours worked—or seemingly worked—and more on outcomes. They argue that managers must encourage transparency, so they know how much work employees are actually doing, and not punish them for finishing work faster.

Strategic use of leisure time could also be used as an incentive, with managers allowing workers to surf the internet, read, or play video games as a reward for completed work. This, they argue, would also provide managers with valuable insight into how long tasks take and which employees have extra capacity, allowing them to allocate work better and recoup costs from unnecessarily idle time.

Discussing such employee incentives in IZA World of Labor, Daniele Nosenzo argues that “extra attention should be paid to how incentives are described. Experiments show that employees can be motivated to work harder under ‘penalty’ contracts than under ‘bonus’ contracts. This suggests that firms can reap productivity gains by simply adjusting the language of their employment contracts, at no extra financial cost to the firms.”

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