The Surprising Benefits of Idle Employees
The Surprising Benefits of Idle Employees

Work/life balance. Avoiding burnout. And the fact that sometimes inspiration comes from... nothing.

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The cursor is blinking in and out. Another blank page. This has to get done tonight. The newsletter goes out tomorrow.

Title, title, title. Font Times New Roman, 16 point, bold. Local Food is... Eating Local... Food that Is Close to Home... Do You Know Where That Egg Came From? What am I trying to say?

Blinking cursor. Blinking cursor. Ding! New email from DJ. Damn, conference call at 3. Gotta call Bob and Laura and make sure they’ll be available.

*20 minutes later*

Where was I? Oh crap, blinking cursor. Title, title, title. Ding! Text from Samantha: don’t forget milk for Isla’s formula. Crap. I’m not even going to be home before bedtime. Is there a delivery service that brings milk? Tell me, the Google.

*20 minutes later*

Where was I? Oh crap, blinking cursor. Title, title, title... The Surprising Benefits of Eating Loc – Ding! Conf call reminder, got to get on with DJ, Bob and Laura in 5 minutes. No point in working on this now. Maybe I can get Ari enrolled for art camp right quick.

*1.5 hours later*

Follow-up emails sent, now where was I? Oh crap. Blinking. Cursor. Wait, did the milk actually get delivered? I need to text Samantha. Did I even tell her some dude was showing up at the door with milk? That’s going to be a fight.

*2 hours later*

Guess I’ll be burning the midnight oil again. I need a vacation. Somewhere the cursors don’t blink... and nothing dings.




In a 2017 survey, 95% of Human Resources leaders said employee burnout was sabotaging workforce retention. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge released a report estimating that employee burnout was costing between $125 to $190 billion a year in health care costs alone. Americans work longer full time workweeks than anywhere in the world, they leave 768 million PTO days on the table yearly, and Statistic Brain reports that we, as a nation, are more stressed out than any other developed country.

Many employers have implemented strategies aimed at “work/life balance.” Mandatory vacation, sabbaticals, unlimited PTO, wellness programs, remote opportunities, pool tables and yoga classes in the office – these aren’t bad initiatives, but they’re like a bandage on a deeper wound.

Because it isn’t just work that’s frying us. Between our smart phones and smart watches and prolific wi-fi access and social media and group work apps, we are almost never beyond range of the constant “dings” that interrupt our thought processes.

On a purely day-to-day basis, this is draining our creativity. We have become ineffective and inefficient, hyperstimulated to the point where we take hours to do any task beyond “fill out form for art camp.” And employers need more from their top performers, who are usually the closest to hitting the wall at any given moment.

Fixing this problem, as far as the workplace is concerned, is about more than vacations or goat yoga. It’s about giving us permission to do “nothing” sometimes.

Why we don’t do “nothing.”

We know that people who take more vacations are healthier and more efficient at work, and yet, as noted above, we are not using the vacation we are given, even when it is unlimited. We are working longer hours than required. And when we do take vacation, we often pile on extra stress as we work ahead beforehand, remain available to “dings” throughout “just in case,” and dread the pile of backed-up work on our desks when we return.

When we work remotely in a “flexible” work environment, we often remain available 24/7 so everyone knows we’re there.

When we use the pool table on our lunch hour, we make sure we are multi-tasking: constructive team building, talking shop with coworkers, etc. And we keep our cell phones on. Our doors open. All. The time.

Why? Part of it is that we don’t want to appear lazy. The other part is that our culture generally equates “busyness” with meaningful accomplishments and goals. From “The Busy Trap”:

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

In other words, the social pressure to look busy is so real that we are busy. Most people check their smart phones 150 times per day. Younger adults send around 110 text messages per day. We are all able to be constantly available, so everyone in our lives from our employers to our neighbor’s step-kid’s uncle expects us to be constantly available. And we make ourselves constantly available.

Imagine if “the writer” in the introduction to this article wanted to unplug and go walk around for a few minutes, without his phone. Stare at trees and philosophically contemplate the last local meal he actually ate. Maybe his thoughts wander to what his toddler said at the dinner table the other night. Maybe he sits on a bench and watches people watching their phones.

Do we consider that working?

We should.

Why we need to do “nothing.”

In an interview with Delta Sky Magazine, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was asked about his process, to which he replied:

The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life.

Not to say that we magically conceive genius musicals every time our minds wander, but often when we focus too hard on the problem we are solving, we hit sticking points, the blinking cursor on the blank page that just needs a title. This article from Psychology Today brings up the story of American physicist Donald Glaser:

In the fifties, Glaser was involved in the study of high-energy particles. Slower-moving subatomic particles could be tracked in the Wilson Cloud Chamber, but the newly developed high-energy accelerators unleashed particles moving more than 1000 times faster. There seemed to be no way to study them or to track their movement. Glaser tried everything, but kept running into a dead end. It seemed impossible.

Then one day at a leisurely lunch, he noticed the bubbles rising in a glass of beer. It started him thinking. Could it be possible to track super high-energy particles in some kind of liquid using bubbles?

He began a new series of experiments that led to his development of the now famous Bubble Chamber. That opened up vast new possibilities for research and led to a Nobel Prize for Glaser.

This is how creativity works.

If the writer had been allowed to walk around and stare at trees for 20 minutes, a title likely would have popped into his brain at some point. The cursor would have moved down the page significantly in an hour, words in its wake, rather than flashing in the same place for several hours.

From the New York Times:

With monotony, small differences begin to emerge, between those trees, those sweaters. This is why so many useful ideas occur in the shower, when you’re held captive to a mundane activity. You let your mind wander and follow it where it goes.

Of course, it’s not really the boredom itself that’s important; it’s what we do with it. When you reach your breaking point, boredom teaches you to respond constructively, to make something happen for yourself. But unless we are faced with a steady diet of stultifying boredom, we never learn how.

As much as we’d like to, we can’t force creative or strategic productivity, we have to give employees space. Real space. As author Ray Bradbury said, “Ideas are like cats. You can’t call them up. If they come, it’s because it’s their choice. Not yours.”



How to put “nothing” into balanced initiatives.

Obviously this plan to let employees be idle can go terribly awry if some boundaries aren’t established. We often talk about balance, most of the time we are talking about “work/life balance,” but that is a false dichotomy when we’re talking generally about availability. If we are being honest with ourselves, we’re not burning out because we aren’t spending enough time rushing our kids to school and doing bedtime routines between workdays. We’re burning out because there is no end to our availability.

So balance, but not work-life balance. Work-boredom balance. Because if we all daydream in the park all day long, no work gets done. Here is how to make idle employees, and idleness, work for you:

  • Establish acceptable “unplugged” intervals. The whole office can do it simultaneously so that everyone knows it’s “quiet time” and to leave each other alone, or flexible plans can be implemented for a “break” every couple of hours. Maybe use the “sock on the door” approach to signal a dark period. Regardless of how the intervals work, it is important not to let it be open, and not just because it can be used too often. More likely people will end up NOT using their time, worrying they will appear to slack off. Setting clear “rules” will both encourage people to take these breaks when they are offered and to keep it in check.
  • Make it very clear that these “idle times” are not going to be viewed negatively by supervisors and in fact will be seen as positive. As noted above, it is far more likely that people will simply avoid using their “unplugged breaks” rather than abusing them, as can be seen in the aforementioned statistics on vacation and paid time off. Whether or not the breaks are mandatory, they should be strongly encouraged.
  • Let vacations be vacations and goat yoga be goat yoga. If, beyond daily quiet times, you want to inject “idleness” into initiatives you are already implementing, just be sure to take the pressure off of the “fun” and truly let it be fun. When employees go on vacation, make it a rule that they actually unplug. Be sure cross-training is well enough established that they don’t return to a mountain of work. They will come back inspired, refreshed, ready to invent bubble chambers.
  • Suggest “idle” activities. Is there a good walking route near the office with lots of trees and phone watchers? Is there a gym in the building? Is there easy busy work to do alone like filing in the basement or unloading the communal dishwasher? Is there an empty office with a window and a decent view? Prescribed activities aren’t a must, but they give employees a direction to go in so they aren’t spending their whole “unplugged” period thinking of boring things to do.
  • Acknowledge that not every break will lead to inspiration, sometimes it’s just a break. If too much emphasis is put on Hamilton and bubble chambers, these breaks will quickly feel less like breaks and more like times you are supposed to sit and “think about work.” Give the space and the break. Recognize that the inspiration and energizing will come about organically in that space without us reaching in and tugging it into existence.

Most importantly, remember the fundamental foundation of this whole experiment: “boring” and “nothing” are good things.

Because things happen when you’re bored. It’s when you are bored that stories set in. Pamela Paul, Editor of the Book Review

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