It’s mid-afternoon and you’re in a post-lunch slump. You’ve got dozens of emails to reply to, a Google document containing a dull project in front of you and a meeting coming up. You know you should be getting on with your work, but you’re finding it hard to focus. Without thinking about it, you open up Facebook and start scrolling.
Lots of us find ourselves drifting away from our work to check social media, browse ASOS and carry out other personal tasks online. More than a quarter of UK workers are spending three months a year looking at non-work related content online, according to one survey.
Another found 60% of workers can’t get through the day without checking their social media, with 86% of respondents agreeing that Facebook is the biggest workplace distraction. This is known as cyberloafing — and it turns out many of us are guilty of it.
Cyberloafing and stress
For a long time, workplace cyberloafing — the personal use of the internet during working hours — was believed to be a problem that can harm businesses and it’s easy to see why. When we’re checking our social media feeds, replying to personal emails or chatting on Hangouts, we’re not getting on with what we should be doing. Not only are we disengaged when we’re cyberloafing, it’s a drain on productivity too.
However, More recent research has suggested there may be some benefits to cyberloafing. Last year, a group of researchers published a study that suggested cyberloafing may actually serve as a mini break during the day, allowing employees to recover from work stress.
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To test the hypothesis, 258 university students who also worked at least 20 hours a week were asked to fill in an online survey about their job. The participants were asked to rank how much time they spent shopping online and doing other non-work activities, as well as their job satisfaction, desire to quit and whether they have been treated badly at work.
Unsurprisingly, those who reported more workplace mistreatment had lower levels of job satisfaction and were more likely to want to quit. But the researchers also discovered that cyberloafing boosted job satisfaction among mistreated workers — and made them less likely to want to leave their jobs.
“Therefore, we argue that the role of workplace cyberloafing is more complex than previously assumed and posit that cyberloafing may provide employees with a way to cope with workplace stress such as exposure to workplace aggression,” the researchers wrote.
Impact of microbreaks
To some extent, using the internet at work to do personal tasks may be similar to taking a short break — which may have a positive effect on the way we feel and work. Microbreaks are based on the theory that being able to disengage with work, even for a short period of time, can help replenish the psychological and physical costs associated with working hard.
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By shifting our focus onto something unrelated to work, it helps us reduce demands that are causing fatigue — and boost happiness, focus and satisfaction.
However, it’s important to note that while some cyberloafing may be fine in the workplace, too much can be detrimental. According to the study on cyberloafing, stress and negative workplace culture, employees spend around two hours every day using the internet for non-work activities — which costs organisations almost $85bn (£67bn) per year in lost productivity.
Restricting social media access
So where does that leave employers? One solution is to restrict social media access, but research suggests this can backfire. Many employees use social media for work, so it’s also not always practical. Employees are likely to find loopholes using alternative networks, or they’ll use their personal phones to go online. Blocking social media and certain websites can also make people feel oppressed and foster a lack of trust, which affects morale, engagement and job satisfaction.
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Social media can also be a useful tool for communication among employees too. According to research by Lorenzo Bizzi, an assistant professor of management at the California State University, employees interacting with coworkers on social media “tend to be more motivated and come up with innovative ideas.”
If staff are spending too long on non-work online activities, it’s important to find out why so you can tackle any underlying problems. Research from Wisconsin School of Business has suggested cyberloafing may be linked to unhappiness, with people more likely to waste time online if their workplace doesn’t treat them fairly. It may be that someone is bored, unfulfilled or disengaged with their work. These are problems that won’t be resolved by simply blocking their access to Facebook.