Cyberloafing in the workplace is a bad thing, right?

After all, this habit of employees engaging in non-work-related internet surfing costs U.S. employers a whopping $85 billion a year, according to a University of Nevada report cited by the BBC.

And 36 percent of millennials and Gen Z said they spend two or more hours per workday looking at their phones for personal activities, according to over 1,000 full-time U.S. workers surveyed in the 2018 Workplace Distraction Report by online learning company Udemy.

What Is Cyberloafing?

Cyberloafing is when employees use their work time to engage in non-work-related internet activities from checking social media and personal email to web browsing and more. 

And with more people working from home following the pandemic, cyberloafing is only increasing.

The initial reaction often is to stomp out cyberloafing because of its adverse impact on productivity, but research is emerging that raises questions about its potential benefits (like addressing burnout), too.

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What Is Cyberloafing?

Cyberloafing is a term to describe employees who use work time to engage in non-work-related activities on the internet, such as web browsing, using social media, or checking and responding to personal email.

And while its definition is relatively simple to describe, the way it can manifest makes it a complex matter. Some workers may turn to cyberloafing to relieve stress on the job and browse the internet as a coping mechanism, according to a study titled “Unraveling Cyberloafing Paradox: Towards a Targeted Approach for Managing Cyberloafing.

Employees spending time browsing the internet on their phone, or emailing friends and looking at social media when they are supposed to be working on a report is a blatant example of cyberloafing, Bright Frimpong, a research assistant at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and co-author of the “Unraveling Cyberloafing Paradox” study, told Built In.

But there are also a lot of gray areas when it comes to cyberloafing, Frimpong added. For example, he said, if there is a lull in your work while you wait for another team to finish a project to hand over to you, are you really cyberloafing if you use the time to check your personal email, look up sports scores or watch a YouTube video?

“It’s very difficult to pinpoint these as cyberloafing behaviors because even though they are not productive, the employee has really nothing to do at that time,” Frimpong added. “I think it’s just a matter of being productive at the right time.”

The term was coined in 1995 but grew in popularity in 2002 after a research paper was published in the Organizational Behavior Journal on the topic. Initially, early research focused on the unproductive and harmful effects a company faced when its employees engaged in cyberloafing. But as study into this area matured, researchers began exploring other fringe areas of cyberloafing and the discovery of potential benefits began to emerge, Frimpong said.

 

What Causes Cyberloafing?

To understand the causes of cyberloafing, you need to understand what employees are trying to achieve by it. In some instances, there are tangible benefits like learning new skills. In others, the employee might use it for a much-needed break for their mental health or well-being.

For example, loneliness and workplace ostracism can prompt some employees to turn to social media to offset the lack of interaction with co-workers and others, said Natalie Mason, a PhD candidate at Aston University who is researching the use of cyberloafing as a coping mechanism and authored a report on the topic published in Nature Reviews Psychology.

These employees may find the emotional support they need to power through the rest of the day via social media, Mason said.

What Causes Cyberloafing?

  • Loneliness and workplace ostracism
  • Stress
  • Burnout
  • Workplace aggression
  • Emotional or physical pain
  • Boredom 
  • Desire to find resources that make work and life better

In other cases, employees are using cyberloafing as a release valve for their stress, whether it’s from feeling burned out or because of workplace aggression from others, Mason said. It can provide a mental distraction that can help employees jump back into work once their cyberloafing break is over.

Cyberloafing can also help momentarily offset workplace boredom, allowing employees to take a mental break from their tasks and return refreshed.

Employees who lack adequate resources at work, such as an ergonomic office chair, may jump on the internet to learn of alternative resources they could use, like browsing for one. That internet activity, however, is considered a form of cyberloafing since it is not directly involved with the task at hand and is considered developing new non-work-related skills or abilities while on the job, Frimpong said.

Employer policies around allowing workers to bring their own electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets or even laptops, into the workplace can also contribute to cyberloafing, since employees may feel it’s perfectly fine to use them anytime, despite being on the clock.

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How to Prevent Cyberloafing

To start, develop clear and equitable cyberloafing HR policies. Set expectations on the amount of time or circumstances where non-work-related internet activities would be allowed either on an employee’s personal device or the company’s equipment. Be sure to clearly note the websites and social media that would be prohibited.

And rather than just address an employee’s actual cyberloafing behavior, try digging deeper into the “why” with them.

“Managers need to be more understanding of why someone might go to their phone or use the internet during a time they should be productive at work.”

“There are so many motivations that go into cyberloafing. So, to really understand how to stop it or manage it, you need to know the motivations behind it,” Frimpong said.

In some cases, for example, employees may lack the self-awareness to know they are using social media at work because they feel ostracized by their teammates, but in other cases, they might be aware of this reason. In either situation, the issue should be discussed with the employee’s manager, Mason said.

Ways to Prevent Cyberloafing

  • Set expectations on when non-work-related internet activities are allowed, and on which devices.
  • Clearly note websites and social media that are prohibited.
  • Identify triggers for employees who might be engaging in non-work-related internet activities to reduce emotional or physical issues.
  • Have open conversations with employees to understand why they may be resorting to cyberloafing.

“Managers need to be more understanding of why someone might go to their phone or use the internet during a time they should be productive at work,” Mason told Built In. “There should be open communication between you and your employees to understand why they are doing these actions.”

For employees who turn to cyberloafing to improve their well-being or to reduce emotional or physical discomfort, it comes down to identifying the triggers for those behaviors and then addressing them through conversations with the employee in question.

In cases where cyberloafing is excessive and interfering with meeting deadlines or completing projects, it can be useful to explore the problem through another lens.

“You have to look at cyberloafing as the same way you would diagnose mental illness,” Mason said. “If it gets in the way of your everyday life, then it’s excessive. If it’s stopping you from meeting your deadlines and doing your everyday job, it’s excessive.”

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