The dangers of downtime: What to do with idle time during the workday

With the popularity of entrepreneurs like Gary Vaynerchuk and the rise of hustle culture, it feels like everyone is working more hours than ever—and struggling as a result. As we’ve written in the past, overwork leads to all sorts of problems including impaired sleep, heavy drinking, and depression.

But too much work isn’t the only issue. There’s another (very different) challenge that’s increasingly affecting today’s workforce: downtime.

No, we’re not talking about taking time off (which is one of the best things you can do for your productivity and work-life balance). But rather how inefficiencies, scheduling errors, and poor communication can leave people without enough to do during the workday.

While it might sound like a joke, new research from Harvard Business School showed that 78.1% of workers experience involuntary idle time in their job on a weekly basis, costing the US economy an estimated $100 billion dollars.

It isn’t only businesses that are paying the cost though. People are increasingly looking for ways to fill their time at work and feeling inefficient and frustrated in the process.

Whether you’re an employer or employee, downtime is a problem you’re likely to face. But how serious is it? What causes downtime, and how can you prevent it?

RescueTime helps you stay focused and productive by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Try it for free

The deadtime effect: Why downtime is a real problem for workers and companies

Downtime crossed hands

If you’ve ever faced a deadline, you’re probably aware of the inverse relationship they create between time and effort. With lots of time, you start off at a leisurely pace. But then, as the deadline approaches, you speed up until you’re knocking back Redbull just to finish on time.

However, unlike the rush to hit a deadline, when workers anticipate moments without work, there’s a deadtime effect

The Harvard Business School study found that as the anticipated idle time approached, workers would slow down. In other words, they would try to drag out their work for as long as possible to fill the time they have.

On its own, this might not sound like a very big issue. However, the researchers also discovered that even though employees were spending more time on their tasks, they made just as many mistakes.

More time to work ≠ Better work. Click To Tweet

This is bad for companies, but also for individuals.

Idle time is often a necessary part of many jobs and can’t be scheduled into your calendar. For example, in my previous life as a Quality Manager, I might have weeks of quiet time. But, when a complaint or query came in, it would be all hands on deck.

The same thing goes for workers waiting for approvals, feedback, or responses to questions. The human brain loves routine, but without a steady stream of work coming in it can feel like your attention and focus are out of your control.

Involuntary idle time also creates boredom–something us humans hate. Boredom has been associated with lower job satisfaction, increased job withdrawal and, rather dramatically, even decreased lifespan.

Researchers studying the lives of middle-aged civil servants found those most likely to get bored were 30% more likely to have died within the next three years.

They were quite literally bored to death.

The main causes of downtime

Downtime woman

It’s difficult to solve a problem you’re not aware of. And most managers aren’t aware of the amount of downtime their teams face. For obvious reasons, employees are hesitant to come forward and say they have no work to do.

They’re also likely to try and appear busy, even if they’re not. Researchers have found “irrelevant input measures, such as the amount of time an employee spends in the office, influence outcome assessments such as performance reviews.”

In plain English, we’re more likely to think people are doing a good job if we see them working long hours.

To make sure they get that good performance review, employees are likely to mask their downtime so they appear busier.

As one person on Reddit who works in maintenance said:

“I work 12 hour days and the VAST majority of that time is spent wandering around with a blank piece of paper on a clipboard while trying to look busy to other people…whom I suspect are also walking around with blank pieces of paper on clipboards trying to look busy.”

Again, for most customer service-based work, involuntary idle time is simply an inevitable part of the job. The amount of work depends on the customers and clients and can vary wildly.

But while downtime may be inevitable, that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.

RescueTime tells you exactly when you’re most productive so you can schedule your best work for when you’re at your best. Try it for free

5 ways businesses can reduce the negative effects of downtime

Downtime in the office

While idle time may be an inevitable part of many jobs, there are several ways managers can reduce the effects and even benefit from downtime.

1. Openly acknowledge and sanction idle time

Employers who recognize idle time is unavoidable (and assure employees they won’t be evaluated negatively for it) reduce the stigma. As a result, employees are more likely to be open about their downtime and managers will be able to better allocate work tasks.

2. Make idle time more enjoyable

The Harvard Business School research found that when employees were allowed to use downtime to relax or socialize with colleagues who also had idle time, the deadtime effect vanished. Employees no longer stretched their work to fill their time, and employee wellbeing and performance improved.

3. Improve team planning and communication

We’ve seen that one of the major causes of involuntary downtime is waiting—for a response, decision, or confirmation.

By collaborating and communicating in clearly defined bursts you can reduce the amount of waiting time your team has (or at least let them know when they should be waiting and when they should be expecting a response.)

4. Provide opportunities to improve

While the same study focused on the benefits of sanctioned idle time for leisure and socializing, one thing that frustrates employees is the waste that comes with downtime.

Using unavoidable downtime as a chance for learning new skills or working toward industry relevant certification is a win-win.

5. Examine other working arrangements (like remote work or the 4-day work week)

Lastly, you might want to examine other working arrangements. Is your team working in the office 9-5, five days a week? If so, why? Is it because that’s what’s really needed, or just because that’s the way it’s always been done?

More companies around the world are experimenting with a four-day work week and reaping the benefits of a happier, more effective workforce. Others are taking advantage of remote work, with 70% of people working outside of the office at least once a week.

By enabling (and trusting) your team to do their job in a way that benefits them, you’ll see an increase in productivity in the workplace and a decrease in deadtime.

5 ways employees can reduce the negative effects of downtime

Downtime individuals

Of course, there’s a chance you’re the employee who’s facing the prospect of involuntarily idle time. (And your boss hasn’t yet realized he should be reading the RescueTime blog!)

What can you do to make sure downtime doesn’t become the bane of your life?

1. Ask for more work

It may go against your instincts, but if you find yourself without enough work to keep you busy, try letting your boss know. It’s got to be better than electrocuting yourself, right?

This might mean asking for more responsibilities or even coming forward with new opportunities for more work you’ve identified. However, be careful. While many bosses will be more than happy to give you more work, there’s always going to be one who reacts negatively. They may question the quality of your work, or whether your job is even still necessary. Proceed with caution.

2. Use that time for learning

If you’re ambitious, downtime isn’t just boring; it’s wasted time that could’ve been spent productively. This can lead to a vicious cycle of low-paying dead-end jobs, where employees can’t learn the skills necessary for promotion or to apply for another job.

As a result, some have requested training in industry-relevant certifications. Not only are they less likely to be bored, but they’re also making themselves more useful to their employer and improving their resume.

Quick tip: Can’t get your boss to sign off on training? You may still be able to use your downtime to teach yourself useful new skills.

In a recent interview, designer and author Brad Frost discussed the importance of staying up-to-date with the latest technologies. But few of us set aside dedicated time for research and reading in the workday.

Obviously, we would never encourage you to steal time from your employer. But if it’s a choice between Netflix and Lynda, new skills are much more beneficial.

This could be something directly related to your work (Designers learning new design techniques), something complementary to your work (Hint: for 99% of us, learning to code will come in handy whatever your job title is) or for a completely different job (the receptionist taking a self-paced course in copywriting).

3. Set clear expectations when collaborating

When a significant part of your job depends on others, make sure they know what you need to do your job.

In a survey conducted by RescueTime, we found 63.5% of people expect a response to requests within an hour, but 3/4 of them had never actually told their colleague or boss about that expectation.

If people aren’t aware that you need a response within a certain time, you’re unlikely to get it. You can cut out a lot of unnecessary idle time by being clear about what you need and by when.

4. Do the best job you can

Normally, involuntary downtime has very few benefits. While employees take longer on tasks, there isn’t a reduction in errors.

However, now that you’re aware of that phenomenon, you can use your work time more effectively. Rather than stretching out tasks, use the time you have to optimize and turn in better work, which will look better on your performance review than spending all day on Facebook.

5. Schedule your work

While you may not have much choice about what work you do, it might be easier to change when you do certain tasks.

For example, save intensive tasks for when you’re at your peak, rather than tackling them in the middle of an afternoon slump. It’s also smart to take the rest of the team’s schedule into consideration. By taking care of work that requires feedback early on, you can crack on with other tasks while you wait for a response.

Bonus: Suggest your boss reads this post

Sanctioned (paid) downtime, here we come!

You don’t have to let downtime during the workday get you down

While it may sound like the best problem ever, downtime is a real challenge that’s causing problems for employers and employees alike.

But by acknowledging the problem, planning your day, and making the most of any downtime, you can turn the problem into a valuable part of the day.

Daniel Rose is a copywriter who helps B2B SaaS companies get rid of boring writing and connect with their customers. His writing has appeared on Zapier, Reply.io, and Contact Enhance. 

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Leave a comment