Wasting time online at work: it’s (maybe) not your fault

By David Donaldson

Friday June 15, 2018

Do you spend your workday endlessly checking Facebook and scrolling through Twitter?

Well good news: it might not be your fault — maybe you’re just not being given enough to do.

Although wasting time online at work is typically understood to be a negative behaviour, a group of academics believe that for the most part it’s a coping mechanism for boredom.

Previous studies show that your workload is associated with how engaged you feel with your job, and that having too little or too much to do can both be harmful for organisational commitment and job performance.

“Training efforts can be made to channel employees’ efforts into more productive outlets such as job crafting or enriching…”

One paper found underloading could increase things such as fatigue, sleeping problems, and anxiety. Boredom at work appears to make it more likely you’ll feel depressed at the end of the day, and can contribute to stress and turnover.

The authors of a paper in the journal Computers in human behaviour argue that while wasting time on the internet has previously been examined in terms of staff retaliating against the organisation, being stressed or having low self-control, what they call “cyber-loafing” actually appears to be more about boredom.

This potentially casts cyber-loafing in a less negative light — rather than harming the organisation, staff are engaging in a “temporary relief strategy” that is “probably less harmful to the organization than other forms of disengaged coping” or other types of counterproductive work behaviour.

Testing — an online survey with 189 American university staff — seems to confirm this, with engagement in cyber-loafing associated with boredom, and being more strongly correlated with boredom than negative emotions such as anger at the organisation or retaliation.

This carries implications for managers and human resources units. Cyber-loafing can be used as an indicator that staff are under-worked or under-stimulated.

Optimistically, they also suggest harnessing that distraction for the good of the organisation.

“Training efforts can be made to channel employees’ efforts into more productive outlets such as job crafting or enriching, or into organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB)”, the academics think.

“Training that promotes OCB or job enrichment as a coping response to boredom would benefit the organization.”

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