Study: Web-surfing at work can rejuvenate workers, improve productivity

CINCINNATI -- The stern looks from managers. The passive-aggressive emails from the boss. We've all been caught a time or two browsing Facebook or writing a personal email while on the clock.

But really, who doesn't need a mental break from the everyday tasks once in awhile?

A new study out of the University of Cincinnati supports this notion and says the short web-browsing breaks can actually boost productivity in the workplace.

The study was led by Sung Doo Kim, a doctoral candidate in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business, and researched coping with technology-induced distractions in our contemporary society.

Most research in past years has focused mainly on breaks taken during off-job hours, such as evenings, weekends and vacation periods and more traditional "offline" breaks taken during work hours, such as grabbing a coffee or eating lunch.

But Kim's study honed in on a very prevalent, yet very hushed type of break: the daily Twitter and Instagram browsing or Gmail-ing going on while we're supposed to be working.

The study looks at in depth one-on-one interviews conducted with 33 professionals from various industries.

Researchers examined three main factors, including:

  • Triggers that prompt online work breaks/Conditions that lead to taking an online break rather than an offline break
  • Different online break activities
  • Consequences of online work breaks

What they found may shock bosses (and make employees feel a little less guilty).

Triggers of online work breaks:

Kim says workers take online work breaks when they reported a high need for recovery (feeling frazzled from an intense work period, recovering from a reported significant loss of physical or emotional energy).

Triggers also included breaking monotony or boredom, checking on demands at home and other personal demands, or emotional work-related events that triggered anger or frustration.

Conditions that Lead to taking an Online Versus Offline Break:

Workers whose jobs required extensive computer time or sitting at a  desk for prolonged periods were less likely to find online breaks rejuvenating, versus jobs that required a good deal of physical activity or a lot of face-to-face interaction, prompting employees to decompress with some “alone time” online.

Organizational polices also affected the tendency to take online breaks, as some of the employees reported that their workplace had strict policies on the personal use of workplace computers. Kim adds that older workers who had spent years in the workplace previous to the birth of the Internet frowned on online breaks, stating that they were being “paid to work.” So, personal values also played a factor in taking online breaks.

Online Break Activities:

The reported online activities were categorized into two types: pleasure-seeking and non-work-related duties and responsibilities. The former includes listening to music, reading entertaining articles and checking the sports scores while the latter includes checking in with family members, paying bills and doing school work. Many activities reported, however, were not clearly delineated between the two types, indicating the multipurpose fuzzy nature of online breaks.

The possible consequences of online work breaks:

The researchers outlined three consequences of online work breaks: momentary recovery, learning and satisfaction.

First, the workers took online breaks as a quick chance to unwind. “Employees reported benefits on going online to balance their work and personal responsibilities, such as checking on their children,” says Kim. “After reassuring themselves about their children, they were better able to focus on their work.”

He says that people going online for industry news or research felt that they were benefiting themselves in their careers. Also that employees who took online breaks reported greater levels of satisfaction at work, perhaps because of the freedom to be able to occasionally check in on their personal life.

The researchers say that if taken in an undisciplined manner, online breaks could turn into cyber-loafing, resulting in the excessive loss of time and productivity.

“There’s little research about whether workers take online or offline breaks in distinct ways, therefore, this exploratory study fills an important gap in that research by providing evidence into what motivates online or offline work breaks,” says Kim.

The conclusion? It's suggested that managers allow online work breaks to enhance workers productivity but also establish limits so Facebook-ing doesn't happen from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

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