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Worker ‘Idle Time’ Costs U.S. Employers $100 Billion a Year, Study Says

American workers are spending hours doing nothing, and it is costing their companies more than $100 billion a year, according to a new survey.


By

Rachel Feintzeig

American workers are spending hours doing nothing, and it is costing their companies more than $100 billion a year, a new study says.

Employers are paying that much in wages for “idle time”—periods when employees are on the clock but unable to get any work done, according to research to soon be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The problem crosses industries and occupations, ranging from an investment banker who can’t finish a PowerPoint presentation because she is waiting for data from a colleague to a store cashier without customers to check out. More than three-quarters of the 1,003 workers surveyed across 29 occupational categories said they experience idle time at work, while nearly 22% said it happens daily.

To reach the $100 billion figure, researchers multiplied the average yearly idle time by the number of Americans who work full-time outside of their homes by the median U.S. wage of $17.09 an hour. They said the survey was representative of the American workforce in terms of regions, gender, age, race, education and other factors.

In theory, downtime at work has benefits. Workers are free if an unexpected task pops up, said Andrew Brodsky, an author of the paper and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business. Further, true work breaks help workers recharge and protect against burnout.

But in practice, the advantages of idle time are limited, Mr. Brodsky said. Workers don’t like being bored. So when they have too little work, they tend to stretch it to fill the time, he said. They also don’t want to appear idle, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs.

Throwing more work at employees won’t likely solve the problem, Mr. Brodsky cautions. Since it is hard to tell who has idle time, managers would probably end up just overloading some people. Instead, employers should encourage workers to be open about their lulls so bosses know who is really free, he said.

Corporate leaders should also push workers to take a break and relax when they have free time, Mr. Brodsky said. The researchers found that when those with too much time were allowed to use the internet once they wrapped up their task, they didn’t slow their pace as much.

At consulting firm Bain & Co., consultants between projects are referred to as being “on the beach,” said Keith Bevans, a partner who leads recruiting for the firm. Managers know who is busy and who isn’t and distribute new assignments accordingly. When lulls crop up during a project—for example, a big meeting gets pushed back—consultants are often encouraged to head home early.

“You gotta find a way to catch your breath,” Mr. Bevans said.

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

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