Management & Organization

Empty work. Are you bored at work?

When I worked as a ticket seller at a public pool, I'd sometimes spend most of my time studying, playing solitaire or chatting with my coworkers. Sometimes, there simply wasn't enough customers to keep me occupied the entire day.

And it seems, I am not the only one who've had this experience.

1.5 – 3.0 hours of empty work a day

Swedish sociologist Roland Paulsen has interviewed 43 people about what he calls “empty work”, which is the time you spend on your job, doing nothing. Part of the reason for his research was a curiosity about the many discussions about stress and its connection to recent studies from USA, Germany and Singapore that showed, that we, on average, spend 1.5 – 3.0 hours a day doing empty work. He started researching how things were in Sweden.

According to Paulsen, academics, knowledge workers and employees who solve tasks their boss have a hard time assesing how much time it takes, are the ones who are doing the worst. But also bank employees and mechanics are represented in the statistics.

Four reasons for empty work

Initially, Paulsen thought that empty work was due to an active resistance towards working. But that is not the full picture. In total, he's identified four causes of empty work:

  1. Work refusal: That you deliberately deselect work out of spite or as a kind of revenge. Either against your boss, the workplace or your tasks that may seem pointless.

  2. The motivation for working is present, but there are not enough work tasks to fill the day (in this category more than half of the people Paulsen interviewed were placed).

  3. Laziness. You do not really feel like working and choose to go on Facebook or something else duing workhours.

  4. The need for a break during the workday, where you think of something else. The problem occurs when the breaks become increasingly frequent and longer and longer.

"Once I was a student assistant in a government department. After I had dealt with all the cases, I sometimes went to the bathroom and took a half-hour nap. I could just lie in the fetal position between the door and the toilet bowl.

I know the feeling of empty work, and it pains me, because I really like my job, and my colleagues. The empty work most often occurs if the manager is working from home, it's her I work with the most, so fortunately it's not every day I sit and surf or play with my hair."

(Translated from

The solution?

You could see this empty work as a sign that your employees are unsatisfied with their work. And as a leader you actually have the opportunity to do something.

Maybe it is time that you talk with your employees? How many of them are actually bored? How can you make sure that everyone has enough interesting tasks?

Source: Roland Paulsen: Arbetssamhället - Hur arbetet överlevde teknologin  (2010) og Roland Paulsen:Empty labor: Subjectivity and idleness at work. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet cop. (2013)