The Downside of Downtime: The Prevalence and Work Pacing Consequences of Idle Time at Work

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Abstract

Although both media commentary and academic research have focused much attention on the dilemma of employees being too busy, this paper presents evidence of the opposite phenomenon, in which employees do not have enough work to fill their time and are left with hours of meaningless idle time each week. We conducted six studies that examine the prevalence and work pacing consequences of involuntary idle time. In a nationally representative cross-occupational survey (Study 1), we found that idle time occurs frequently across all occupational categories; we estimate that employers in the United States pay roughly $100 billion in wages for time that employees spend idle. Studies 2a–3b experimentally demonstrate that there are also collateral consequences of idle time; when workers expect idle time following a task, their work pace declines and their task completion time increases. This decline reverses the well-documented deadline effect, producing a deadtime effect, whereby workers slow down as a task progresses. Our analyses of work pace patterns provide evidence for a time discounting mechanism: workers discount idle time when it is relatively distant, but act to avoid it increasingly as it becomes more proximate. Finally, Study 4 demonstrates that the expectation of being able to engage in leisure activities during posttask free time (e.g., surfing the Internet) can mitigate the collateral work pace losses due to idle time. Through examination and discussion of the effects of idle time at work, we broaden theory on work pacing.

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