Working at 100% all the time is ultimately unsustainable. Leaving space for some downtime at work can help support wellbeing, creativity, and productivity.
We live in a world where it’s possible to work 24/7, 365 days a year. But knowing how to empower your team to log out and set their phones to Do Not Disturb is immensely powerful.
Taking downtime at work is often equated to laziness, but breaks are actually critical to supporting employees’ wellbeing while optimizing their productivity.
So, are you ready to unlearn your negative associations with downtime and explore how it can make your team more productive? Let’s jump in.
Downtime at work is when an employee is not actively engaged in a work-related activity. On the surface, this may sound like a bad thing. After all, employees are paid to work, so should they not spend 100% of their time actively working?
This isn’t the case, especially as downtime can be planned and unplanned.
When a business sets aside time when employees are not expected to work, this is known as planned downtime. These pauses should be considered when planning resources and can include:
Unplanned downtime can be more problematic, depending on how you as a manager handle it. Let’s look at some examples:
Actually, downtime at work is sometimes a good thing. But we’re unlearning problematic views here, so we need to dig deeper.
There’s a pervasive view amongst business leaders that employees taking downtime leads to reduced productivity and lower profits. One report from the McCombs School of Business has shown that US-based companies pay more than $100 billion each year to employees in wages for time spent idle.
On the face of it, this statistic is enough to make you think that downtime is an endemic running businesses dry. But it’s far from the whole story.
Considering all idle time to be a draw on company resources is a short-sighted view that fails to consider employee welfare and the realities of resourcing. It’s impossible to be 100% productive 100% of the time; downtime is critical to ensure employees’ productivity remains as high as possible because they’ll burn out without adequate breaks.
When structured properly, downtime can increase productivity. From scheduled breaks that allow people to rest and recharge to planned thinking time employees can use to reflect on their work, there are many ways downtime can improve outcomes in the workplace.
As always, this comes down to good time management. Before we explore how you can use downtime as a productivity hack, we need to discuss what happens when employees don’t get enough of it.
Remote work is excellent; you can work from anywhere, minimize travel costs, and create an environment that supports your ways of working. But it can also blur the line between work time and personal time.
Research shows that many remote workers spend more time working than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, with staffing firm Robert Half reporting that 45% of remote workers work more hours during the week and nearly 70% work on weekends.
This is due in part to a lack of boundaries. When your office is also your spare room, living room, or bedroom, it’s understandable that switching off can be difficult. A 2021 report showed that 32% of remote workers in the UK were struggling to fully switch off from work, while a study by Freshly found that 60% of remote employees feel guilty about taking breaks during work hours.
Yet, these issues aren’t limited to home-based workers. Totaljob discovered that UK employees take only 24 minutes of the 40 minutes of average break time they’re legally entitled to each day, adding up to around £33,264 in unpaid time worked over the course of their career.
And in 2012, it was found that Americans had an average of nine unused vacation days, with 66% checking their work email when they do take paid time off. We wonder how this stacks up compared to the $100bn lost by US businesses each year.
So, we know that remote and office-based employees struggle to take adequate breaks. What are the consequences of these crumbling boundaries?
Boondoggling is more than a silly-sounding word. It refers to people wasting time, which often happens when employees feel pressure to look busy.
Let’s be honest; we’ve all had to kill time at work before and found ourselves working at an overly leisurely pace. But when employees regularly engage in ‘performative work’ or pretend to be busy for fear of repercussions, you have a big problem.
According to Derek Laney, leaders typically “judge productivity based on visible activity,” such as employees looking busy and working longer hours. This mindset leads higher-ups to actively discourage people from taking breaks, exacerbating the issue.
In fact, according to a 2023 study from Slack, employees use an average of 32% of their time doing performative work that makes it look like they’re being productive. Eeek!
Just remember: busy does not equal productive. Print that off and stick it on the wall where you’ll be able to see it every day.
Similarly, even when workers are highly productive, there's no guarantee their output is good.
People often mistakenly conflate efficiency with efficacy. While efficiency is about getting as many things done in as little time as possible, efficacy focuses on making sure you complete tasks to a high standard.
This means your team can look incredibly productive on the surface but be churning out sub-par results. If you feel this is the case at your company, you’ve likely got a problem with overutilization.
When you overutilize your employees, meaning their workload exceeds their capacity, they’re more likely to overwork, neglecting breaks and working overtime. Overutilization is often caused by a lack of planning and can result in employees rushing jobs to meet deadlines. That means delivering lots of work quickly but at the expense of quality.
Before founding Runn, CEO Tim Copeland ran the largest digital transformation agency in New Zealand, Silverstripe. As he was heavily involved in the scheduling of projects and estimation of business capacity, Tim learnt all about the dangers of overutilizing staff. He had the following to say:
If you're allocating 100% of your staff's time on work, you don't have a lot of breathing room for creativity - or, frankly, for sick leave and anything like that. But, instead, if you're targeting a utilization rate of 80%, you're allowing enough space for work to be a bit more spontaneous, you allow for a lot more creativity. That's one of the things that you can do to actually build a higher quality organization. If you trust that the people are going to spend time well, you don't really need to allocate every single hour of their workday.
‘An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion.’ Newton’s law of inertia may be true in physics, but the same logic can’t be applied to employees’ work habits — no matter what productivity gurus say.
One of the most common reasons employees skip their lunch breaks is because they have too much to do. They may think taking a break will squash their momentum, but this isn’t true.
Whether employees eat lunch at their desks (a habit almost a third of UK workers are guilty of), take frantic snack breaks, or skip meals altogether (which over half of us have done), they’ll damage their physical and mental health in the long-term.
Employees who fail to take well-deserved breaks due to high workloads are careering toward burnout. Burnout can result in fatigue at best and severe mental and physical illness at worst, so it’s critical you ensure everyone takes the time to rest.
Good news: we can now discuss the positives of downtime! Here are three ways planned and unplanned downtime can benefit your team by supporting higher productivity.
Deep work is the pinnacle of productivity: this is when you experience uninterrupted periods of concentration where you’re highly focused and working at the peak of your abilities.
Yet, you can’t experience deep work without proper rest. Suppose you’re lethargic due to a lack of sleep or other symptoms of burnout. In that case, you’re more likely to react slower, process information less accurately, and experience memory lapses: all kryptonite to productive work.
The evidence that rest equals higher productivity keeps piling up: one study by the University of Illinois found that taking breaks actually boosts people’s productivity. Likewise, a Nasa study found that power naps made their pilots and astronauts 100% more alert.
The takeaway? Never push through for the sake of productivity; taking breaks — and even cat naps — can support better periods of focus.
Downtime can also encourage greater creativity. By giving our minds time to wander, we allow ourselves to replenish our brain’s capacity for concentration and creative thinking, so we can step back and look at problems as a whole.
Remembering Newton’s law of inertia, it can be tempting to persevere until you find a solution whenever you get stuck on work tasks. However, you’re usually better off giving your brain a break — especially if you want to generate better ideas.
Think about it: how often has the answer to a quiz question or solution to a tricky task popped into your mind when you’ve been doing anything other than work? There’s a reason ‘shower thoughts’ are such a widespread phenomenon!
Just as you shouldn’t wait to be on the brink of collapse to go to sleep, you shouldn’t only take a break when you’re at the point of burnout. That means taking the initiative to limit employee stress.
Taking adequate breaks can improve employees’ mental and physical health by ensuring they sleep enough, eat healthily rather than relying on desk snacks, and enjoy time away from their screens.
As essayist Tim Kreider has said, ‘Idleness is … as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body.’
As a team leader, it’s your responsibility to implement structured downtime for your employees. Considering almost half of remote workers say they lack support from management, it’s essential you lead by example.
Stop giving out badges to those who work overtime and make rewarding employees who know when to take a break part of your team culture.
You can structure your teams’ days in many ways to encourage greater focus. For example, you can schedule regular ‘coffee breaks’ in everyones’ diaries or recommend using tools that increase productivity.
We love the Pomodoro method for time management, which is structured around periods of deep focus and restorative breaks.
According to Workplace, 82% of US workers feel the option to work flexibly increases employee satisfaction, and 80% feel their productivity and creativity are supported by a more relaxed approach to when and where they work.
Here are a few initiatives you can introduce to support focused work and healthy boundaries when working flexibly.
Compressed hours: Parkinson’s law states that ‘work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion.’ So, chances are your team will be just as productive — if not more so — if you compress their working hours, giving them more time to spend as they wish. Just make sure to resource this time adequately to support healthy utilization rates!
No-contact hours: Nothing is worse than getting repeated notifications and calls when the working day ends. Setting no-contact hours prohibits your team from messaging or calling each other out of work time, encouraging everyone to switch off.
Meeting-free days: Meeting-free days support more prolonged periods of deep work by reducing interruptions. This will help workers stay focused and use their time productively.
From flexible working schedules to perks that encourage restorative downtime, there are many ways companies can create a people-first culture that boosts motivation among the workforce. Remember, productive downtime can — and should — be ad hoc, too!
Here are some ways you can encourage downtime and help people relax:
If one member of your team enjoys a lot of downtime and another is frequently overutilized, you have an issue with workload balancing.
Regularly reviewing resource allocation with resource management software can improve your workload management and ensure everyone has enough work but that no one is overwhelmed.
Utilization rate is an excellent indicator of whether workload and downtime are fairly distributed among your employees, allowing you to manage and rebalance workloads more effectively.
Just as working overtime isn’t always bad — some weeks just require a little more effort — downtime isn’t always a problem; it’s all about how you utilize it.
By putting measures in place to help employees effectively structure and make the most of their spare time at work, you have the perfect opportunity to boost your team’s productivity, support individual performance, and establish yourself as an impactful leader.
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