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BOOK RELEASE: “Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance”

Roland Paulsen
Roland Paulsen

Why do people slack off at work?

Last year it was revealed that 20 workers at a big Swedish mining company had been slacking off at work by taking turns clocking each other in and out. The scheme had been going on for several years - supposedly costing the company millions of dollars. How is such major slacking possible?

In his new book “Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance” (Cambridge University Press), Lund University sociologist Roland Paulsen discloses the secrets of foot-dragging based on interviews with forty employees who spent more than half of their working hours on private activities.

“A curious detail in the mining affair and other publicly debated cases of slacking is that the business worked fine”, Paulsen says. “The workers were responsible for water, electricity and ventilation in the mines, and they did what they were there for. It wasn’t until someone compared two different systems of registration and saw that the numbers didn’t add up that it became known to the managers. That raises a lot of questions. What is the problem with slacking as long as the job gets done?”

Paulsen was able to analyse both quantitative and qualitative data relating to empty labor, which he defines as private activities during working hours. In his study, he looks at different types of empty labor and strategies for withdrawing from work. But his main focus is on why employees choose to avoid work.

“Work is often assumed to fill our lives with meaning and purpose, but the workplace can also be an arena for frustration, power and resistance. International surveys show that employees spend an average of two hours a day on private activities at work. I wanted to see what drew employees to more radical forms of slacking.”

It turned out that the motives varied a lot among the interviewees. Some were slacking for purely egoistic reasons, because they sensed that the job, or certain work assignments, did not concern them or were meaningless. Others did it as a revenge on the company or the boss, and still some others had more ideological reasons feeling that they did not want to contribute to a society that exploited them.

A more surprising result is that empty labor can take place against the intentions of the individual employee. According to Paulsen, an important condition for long hours of empty labor is that it remains difficult for outsiders to see wherein the work consists. With such knowledge advantage the employee can easily create a space for empty labor, but this space can also arise in less obvious ways.

“In the beginning, if you discover that you don’t have to do that much at a new job, that can be quite nice. But eventually, if you’re not into something very creative during those empty working hours, boredom may catch up with you. Sometimes you might even talk about ‘boreout’ which is a diagnosis designating extreme boredom. At that point it can be quite hard to demand new work tasks. Because when you do so, you will also reveal how little you’ve done until then. And so, the longer the emptiness lasts, the harder it becomes to get out of it.”

A well-known example is the German civil servant in Menden who recently wrote a farewell message to his colleagues on his retirement day saying that he had not done anything at work since 1998. He explained that his department had grown larger and larger while the amount of work remained the same. This was also something Paulsen’s interviewees confirmed. Sometimes, you can get caught up in a situation where your main task is to pretend that you’re working, rather than to actually do it. To communicate a lack of work always involves a risk.

In his book, Paulsen describes a bank clerk who, in one of his projects, only worked for fifteen minutes a day. Eventually, he informed his boss about his situation and the reaction was to cut his job in half.

“We tend to ascribe the workplace a rationality that it doesn’t have. It is true that many, often those who are paid the least, experience an intensification of work. But that is not the reality for everyone. What we also see is an increasing pressure on appearing productive and enthusiastic rather than actually being it.”


Roland Paulsen
roland [dot] paulsen [at] fek [dot] lu [dot] se