Employers that Hijack Employees’ Downtime

17 Jan

I read an article, What Happened to Downtime, which basically stated that “we’re addicted to distraction and it’s holding us back.” The author warrants that being constantly connected to technology, i.e., email and the Internet, is the culprit. “We are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched,” he notes. Well, I have a counter argument regarding downtime, especially as it relates to employees in today’s workplace. I will play devil’s advocate and forge ahead with a totally different scenario of why I believe and have witness employees who relinquish their sacred spaces and/or time to anything and everything. And in these situations, employees can only hope to scavenge a morsel of freedom in order to savor an uncluttered minute for those rare “a-ha” moments. Unfortunately, however, many employers view downtime — any time where an employee is not visibly busy — as a time to reorganize and clean house.

First, let’s be clear. Employees emphatically do not want to sacrifice a minute of downtime. Downtime is a luxury stripped from them akin to ripping the band-aid from an open wound. Employees would welcome an interruption-free workspace to be creative and/or innovative. Sometimes, however, even when employees have new ideas, they are squashed, whether consciously or unconsciously, by those in decision-making roles. Many employees’ motivations are dampened and their creativity is downplayed, redirected, or in some instances even discouraged.

When is there an opportunity for an employee to disconnect from all the work distractions, handle an all-consuming workload, and deal with a micromanaging employer? The answer — there is “no time” in the workplace for creative pause, “the shift from being fully engaged in a creative activity to being passively engaged, or the shift to being disengaged altogether.”

Employers could foster a distraction-free and productive workplace just by changing their attitude and mindset toward their employees. Decision makers must have confidence that his/her employees are capable, committed, and qualified to successfully handle the job responsibilities and duties they were hired to do. If employers would trust that their employees are “innocent” (i.e., ability to work independently) until proven “guilty” (i.e., cannot handle empowerment), then they would have a workforce of happy, highly productive employees.

Many employers, however, are skeptical of empowering employees to make decisions or take risks, even when doing so may be in the best interest of the company. My mother once told me that you’re never too smart or too old to learn something — even from a child. I don’t know if this tale I heard years ago is true or not but it puts my mother’s premonition in perspective.

An 18-wheeler approached a bridge and got stuck. Policemen and onlookers had been standing around for an hour trying to figure out how to get this huge truck unstuck and on its way without damaging the bridge. Traffic was backing up for miles. A child in one of the cars inquisitively asked, “Why don’t they just let the air out of the tires.”

An employer’s apprehension for not giving employees latitude to make decisions may be attributed to wanting to avoid and/or prevent mistakes. But, so what if employees make a mistake or two. If the mistake doesn’t cost the company thousands and thousands of dollars, and there’s a possibility that taking a risk will make the company tens of thousands of dollars, why not give employees the opportunity to be creative and learn from their mistakes.


I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison


I implore decision makers to loosen the reins and stop stifling the creativity residing in their employees.

Second, employees have fear too. The state of high unemployment — layoffs, downsizing, and reorganization — is a recipe for employees forgoing downtime. Employees are on high alert, always cognizant of the fact that they must be busy, must have work on their plate, or become one of their fellow comrades — the unemployed. A scenario: one day in a team meeting, I said to no one in particular, “god, can there be at least one day of famine? Why is it always a feast?” My workload, the equivalent of everyone else’s, had approached conditions that were not conducive to a work-life balance. As everyone jovially laughed and shook their heads, one colleague adamantly responded with sincerity. “No!” she said, “don’t ask for famine. You just may get what you’re asking for. Give me all the work you can. I’m grateful for my job.” Sadly and unfortunately, this is the overall feeling and thinking of employees today. It’s both a depressing and sobering reality. One can’t even consider having downtime for fear of seeming lackadaisical or goofing off.

Third, in order to have an enriched and productive work environment, employers must empower employees and give them the tools and interruption-free space necessary to be successful, creative, and innovative. One thing that could be seriously considered is telecommuting. If more employers offered telecommuting and stop being afraid to relinquish control, this one benefit would elicit surprising and positive results and outcomes for employers. It would produce employees who are more creative, insightful, productive, and dedicated because those employees know their employer trusts them to get the job done, whether they’re in the office or working from home. Then, employees would have time to decompress — to clear their minds of all the daily, unnecessary interruptions that rob precious minutes from their day. Another scenario: I attended a  time-management workshop and one participant told attendees that if she didn’t respond to her supervisor’s emails within 5-10 minutes, her boss would trek to her office to ask if she had received the email. This employee experienced continuous interruptions throughout the day.

Whether employers are aware of it or not, or whether it’s deliberate or not, they are without doubt hijacking their employees’ downtime. A final scenario. A colleague was promoted from director to interim vice president. She had to prove that she could handle the additional responsibilities before the “interim” would be dropped from the title. Not only did she have to continue her responsibilities as director but also take on the additional responsibilities of the VP role. She told me it nearly killed her to do two full-time jobs. But she didn’t teeter. She performed both positions exceptionally well and claimed the VP title. In hindsight, she even wondered if it was a setup for her to fail. This colleague unequivocally experienced no downtime.

So, I believe that employers constantly hijack employees’ downtime and this leads to employees whose creativity is stifled, their motivation is dampened, and their ideas kept secret. Employers must have realistic expectations of their staff, empower their employees to make decisions and take risks, and have confidence in the employees they hire. Then, and only then, will employers have a workplace that’s enriched with productive employees who would have no hesitation recommending their workplace to their colleagues.

In the final analysis, in order for employees to thrive and be successful, creative, and innovative, they need their employer’s affirmation, they need downtime, and they need an interruption-free space.

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Posted by on January 17, 2013 in Employment


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