The Deadtime Effect of Idle Time at Work

Hawthorne Effect
Knowledge Center


Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

The Deadtime Effect of Idle Time at Work

A series of study by Brodsky and Amabile (2018) reveals that meaningless idle time (= periods when workers are waiting for a task to be ready for them), occurs frequently. Idle time at work is often viewed as problematic. Therefore, people seek to unproductively stretch out their work to avoid such idle time, which generates a so-called deadtime effect.

The deadtime effect refers to the phenomenon when workers anticipate idle time after finishing a task, their work pace declines and their task completion time increases. As the anticipated idle time gets closer, the deadtime effect exerts a non-linear, accelerating negative impact on work pace.

- Workers who often (have to) use the strategy of work stretching may experience frustration for their job, the manager, and the business they work for.This contributes to even lower productivity in the long run.
- Having idle time allows employees to meet unexpected demand for their role or fulfill any unexpected extra-role tasks that may raise.

Managers need to make the idle time more appealing or less repulsive for workers, so that jobs can be done effectively and time can be used wisely. The study suggests companies offer and legitimate leisure activities, such as internet surfing or games in a public space. To ensure these secondary activities will not interrupt available work, it is necessary to establish clear guidelines and order of activities.

Source: Brodsky, A., & Amabile, T. (2018), "The Downside of Downtime: The Prevalence and Work Pacing Consequences of Idle Time at Work". Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(5): 496-512.


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