Learning & Development

The Plague of Busywork

Parents, coaches, and managers all generally tend to keep their charges occupied one way or another. But when there isn’t much necessary, productive work to do, they’re typically tasked with busywork, or tasks that are designed just to keep people busy and that don’t necessarily have a useful end result.

employee busywork

What is Busywork?

Examples of busywork include asking employees to organize and de-clutter their workspaces, sweep up the shop, or purge customer lists of outdated information. These tasks do have their benefits, such as organized workspaces, clean shops, and up-to-date customer lists, but these benefits are often viewed as not worth the effort needed to achieve them.

Regardless, when employees have some free time, managers sometimes get anxious and start looking for things for them to do. Even worse, there are plenty of examples of busywork that serves no real benefit whatsoever—watching questionably relevant informational videos, reading through standardized documentation for the fifth time, compiling reports nobody will read, etc.

The Trouble With Busywork

“When employees are on the clock, most managers expect them to keep busy through the workday,” says Joanna York in an article for BBC Work Life. “This may mean either completing tasks within their remits, or finding ways to make sure their hands are in some work-related project. Even when workflows deliver some downtime, the message from management is generally clear: find a way to keep working. If workers appear to twiddle their thumbs, some managers step in with ‘busywork’ to keep their employees occupied.”

Critics argue that in addition to the work itself being of little or no value, the use of busywork as a tool to keep staff occupied is similarly useless or even counterproductive. Employees shouldn’t be treated like children who might get into mischief if left unoccupied. Furthermore, employees understandably cringe at doing busywork. It makes work unpleasant and makes them doubt their value. “A 2018 study showed 42% of workers were spending half of their time on busywork, and 71% said that doing too much busywork ‘made them feel as though their lives were being wasted,’” writes York. 

Even though managers may feel uneasy when their teams don’t have enough work to keep them busy, they should try and resist the urge to simply assign meaningless busywork. It’s not the end of the world if an employee has some downtime. It can even help the person de-stress and get organized or tackle small errands on his or her own terms.

Downtime can also lead to new ideas and spur creativity and innovation. Don’t worry about those brief spurts of downtime—leverage them to benefit both the business and productive employees.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.