Study: Idleness Costs Companies $100B a Year

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Feb 2, 2018

A recent study has found that idle time at work when there's nothing to do costs about $100 billion to companies per year, according to a recent study.The paper, "The downside of downtime: The prevalence and work pacing consequences of idle time at work" drew its data from an online survey of about 1,000 (while the initial pool was over 2,000, only about half worked primarily outside the home). What was found was that, across a representative sample of 29 different occupations, 78 percent of employees reported experiencing at least some kind of idle time. The weighted mean amount of idle time that participants reported experiencing in the previous five days of work was 1 hour and 9 minutes. Excluding survey respondents who said they never experienced idle time, the weighted mean became, instead, 2 hours and 45 minutes. The quantity of idle time did not significantly correlate with age, education level or household income. However the study did note that the frequency of idle time is negative correlated with age and education level, but not household income (however it said this correlation was likely due to the large sample size, as the significant correlations were very small in size). 

To determine the financial cost, the researchers assumed the median annual wage in the U.S. of $17.09 per hour (which, the researchers said, is significantly lower than the mean hourly wage of $22.71). Assuming 50 weeks of work per year, the average person's yearly idle time wage is $977. Given that more than 135 million people are employed in the U.S., and that 95.7 percent work primarily outside the home, the study estimates that 7.4 billion hours of idle time are experienced by U.S. workers each year, which totals about $100 billion. 

The researchers stressed in their paper that this does not mean workers are being lazy. Idle time is defined as times when the employee is ready and able to work but cannot do so, as opposed to leisure time, where the employee looks at cat videos on their phone. In other words, leisure time is voluntary, idle time is not. They noted that forced idleness can be just as stressful as overwork, especially when there's nothing to help the worker pass the time more quickly. 

The paper also found that, when knowing there would be nothing to do after a task is done, people tend to stretch out the amount of time to takes the to do the task. So, if you give someone eight hour to do something, they are likely to take the full eight hours. The researched dubbed this "dead time." How do you counter the dead time effect? According to the paper, saying they can surf the Internet once they're done. 

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