HR Management

Sports’ Impact on the American Workplace

It’s probably just as well baseball games don’t usually last until 3:30 in the morning, as a recent 7-hour World Series clash between the Red Sox and the Dodgers did. There is no doubt there were some bleary-eyed Saturday shift workers in Massachusetts the next day who stayed up hoping that their team would come out on top. As the NFL season heats up, there will certainly be even more must-watch games that take their toll on loyal, but tired, fans as they head into work the next day.

march madness

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What is the effect of this on the workplace? According to new research by Kimble Applications, nearly 1 out of every 5 American employees admits that he or she falsely called out sick the day after a major sports event, while another third say they would consider doing so even if they haven’t yet.

Even managers and business leaders who love sports will find that a cause for concern. If this becomes a pattern, or if several employees call in sick on the same day, revenue and business performance will be impacted while creating disruptions for the larger team. Employers will definitely want to keep an eye on this potential curve ball moving forward.

But as we say in soccer, football is a game of two halves—and sports in the workplace can also have a positive effect. A third of American employees surveyed said competition over sports had improved workplace relationships, and more than half said officewide fantasy leagues have a positive effect on workplace culture. Only 4% said they were negative—the rest saw them as harmless fun.

Fantasy sports leagues have become increasingly popular in recent years. For many people, this is the catalyst for an interest in the NFL—they start playing this small-stakes betting game with colleagues, and through following the performance of the players they select, they learn more about the game. More than a third, 36%, reported being more productive while playing fantasy sports, but 22% said they were less productive.

If employees have an appetite for it, I’d advise managers to allow for these competitions because of the obviously positive impact they can have on engagement and morale. But, keep a close eye on them, and have clear parameters and expectations in place to make sure they don’t get in the way of work. It’s all about balance, and there should be a place for both.

Most of the people who play fantasy football enjoy it, and I am not surprised so many believe that it improves workplace relationships—it is something else people have in common and something they can talk about with their colleagues. But a significant minority, 1 in 10 (13%), reported feeling pressured into taking part in fantasy sports even though they didn’t want to. That would be another issue to look out for—as would employees watching games at work. Almost half, 43%, said they have watched games at work while the manager thought they were doing something else—presumably working!

One defense against having your business impacted by over-enthusiasm for sports might be to have a diverse workforce. Not everyone is interested in the NFL or baseball, and not everyone drinks too much while watching—phoning in sick is more likely to involve too many beers than a simple lack of sleep. Our survey showed that 50% of men and 29% of women play fantasy sports, and they were most popular with the youngest workers, with 42% of 18- to 34-year-olds playing. So not every demographic is as prone to this.

My advice would be to build a strong team ethos in the business—and make it clear to employees that unplanned absences are unfair and leave their colleagues “in the lurch,” a sports metaphor that survives the game that it comes from. If a forthcoming sporting event is a must-see that is likely to interfere with an employee’s ability to show up the next day, he or she should be encouraged to take paid time off. That’s the best way to stop too many balls from being dropped.

Another finding from our survey was that a third of respondents reported being tired of overused sports metaphors like the one above. Balls being dropped or a ball in someone else’s court is cliché but still a recognizable comparison. Many times, we’ll use a phrase without realizing it is from sports at all, such as “wild goose chase”—a horse race where the riders scatter. But business and sport have a lot in common, and it is natural to reach for those vivid metaphors. For instance, people who make a habit of phoning in sick the day after a big game are likely to find themselves getting a red card or even being put on the transfer market!

My own view is that sports can be a great unifier. Rivalry over supporting various sides is usually lighthearted and creates an opportunity for social interaction. But our survey highlighted some potential issues for managers, such as all those unauthorized sick days. I would discuss these with staff. Coach Lou Holtz’s advice would work for business, as well as football. He said, “I’d say handling people is the most important thing you can do as a coach. I’ve found every time I’ve gotten into trouble with a player, it’s because I wasn’t talking to him enough.”

Mark Robinson, serial entrepreneur and cofounder of Kimble Applications, has more than 25 years’ experience in the IT consulting industry. In addition to founding the company, he also serves as Chief Marketing Officer where is he is responsible for business development, channel management, and market analysis. Mark started his career in management consulting before working for Oracle Corporation where he witnessed first-hand their rise from start-up to software giant. He started his first IT Consultancy Company, Fulcrum Solutions, in 1997 and cofounded IT consultancy Edenbrook in 2001.