The Art of Not Working at Work

At first, the ability to check email, read ESPN, or browse Zappos while on the job may feel like a luxury. But in time, many crave more meaningful—and more demanding—responsibilities.

Two years ago a civil servant in the German town of Menden wrote a farewell message to his colleagues on the day of his retirement stating that he had not done anything for 14 years. “Since 1998,” he wrote, “I was present but not really there. So I’m going to be well prepared for retirement—Adieu.” The e-mail was leaked to Germany's Westfalen-Post and quickly became world news. The public work ethic had been wounded and in the days that followed the mayor of Menden lamented the incident, saying he “felt a good dose of rage.”

The municipality of Menden sent out a press release regretting that the employee never informed his superiors of his inactivity. In a lesser-known interview with the German newspaper Bild a month later, the former employee responded that his e-mail had been misconstrued. He had not been avoiding work for 14 years; as his department grew, his assignments were simply handed over to others. “There never was any frustration on my part, and I would have written the e-mail even today. I have always offered my services, but it’s not my problem if they don’t want them,” he said.

The story of this German bureaucrat raised some questions about modern-day slacking. Does having a job necessarily entail work? If not, how and why does a job lose its substance? And what can be done to make employees less lazy—or is that even the right question to ask in a system that’s set up in the way that ours is? After talking to 40 dedicated loafers, I think I can take a stab at some answers.

Most work sociologists tend toward the view that non-work at work is a marginal, if not negligible, phenomenon. What all statistics point towards is a general intensification of work with more and more burnouts and other stress syndromes troubling us. Yet there are more-detailed surveys reporting that the average time spent on private activities at work is between 1.5 and three hours a day. By measuring the flows of audiences for certain websites, it has also been observed that, by the turn of the century, 70 percent of the U.S. internet traffic passing through pornographic sites did so during working hours, and that 60 percent of all online purchases were made between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. What is sometimes called “cyberloafing” has, furthermore, not only been observed in the U.S. (in which most work-time surveys are conducted), but also in nations such as Singapore, Germany, and Finland.

Even if the percentage of workers who claim they are working at the pinnacle of their capacity all the time is slowly increasing, the majority still remains unaffected. In fact, the proportion of people who say they never work hard has long been far greater than those who say they always do. The articles and books about the stressed-out fraction of humanity can be counted in the thousands, but why has so little been written about this opposite extreme?

The few books that have been written on this topic were written by slackers themselves. In Bonjour Paresse, French author Corinne Maier offers her own explanation for professional detachment. Maier opens the book (which eventually cost her a job) by declaring that social science has miserably failed to understand the mechanisms of office work: “Millions of people work in business, but its world is opaque. This is because the people who talk about it the most—and I mean the university professors—have never worked there; they aren’t in the know.” Having spent years as a bureaucrat at the utility Électricité de France, Maier contends that work is increasingly reduced to “make-believe,” that at the office, “image counts more than product, seduction more than production.”

Under these circumstances, feigned obedience and fake commitment become so central to working that a deviation from those acts can result in embarrassment for everyone. As she recalls: “One day, in the middle of a meeting on motivation, I dared to say that the only reason I came to work was to put food on the table. There were 15 seconds of absolute silence, and everyone seemed uncomfortable. Even though the French word for work, ‘travail,’ etymologically derives from an instrument of torture, it’s imperative to let it be known, no matter the circumstance, that you are working because you are interested in your work.”

The gap between image and substance is also a recurring theme in the comic Dilbert, whose creator, Scott Adams, was inspired by his uninspiring stints in the working world. Again and again, Adams questions not only the link between work and rationality, but also the relation between work and productivity: “Work can be defined as ‘anything you’d rather not be doing,’” he says. “Productivity is a different matter.”

In the preface to the Dilbert collection This Is the Part Where You Pretend to Add Value, Adams openly gives his impressions of 16 years of employment at Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell:

“If I had to describe my 16 years of corporate work with one phrase, it would be ‘pretending to add value.’ … The key to career advancement is appearing valuable despite all hard evidence to the contrary. … If you add any actual value to your company today, your career is probably not moving in the right direction. Real work is for people at the bottom who plan to stay there.”

Other office workers have presented similar accounts. In The Living Dead, David Bolchover rues “the dominance of image over reality, of obfuscation over clarity, of politics over performance,” and in City Slackers, Steve McKevitt, a disillusioned “business and communications expert,” gloomily declares: “In a society where presentation is everything, it’s no longer about what you do, it’s about how you look like you’re doing it.”

The simulation, the glossing over, the loss of meaning, the jargon, the games, the office politics, the crises, the boredom, the despair, and the sense of unreality—these are ingredients that often reappear in popular accounts of working life. The risk when they only appear in popular culture is that we begin regarding them as metaphors or exaggerations that may well apply to our own jobs but not to work in general. But what would happen if we started taking these “unserious” accounts of working life more seriously?

Consider the last novel by David Foster Wallace, The Pale King, in which an IRS worker dies by his desk and remains there for days without anyone noticing that he is dead. This might be read as a brilliant satire of how work drains liveliness such that no one notices whether you are dead or alive. However, in the strict sense of the word, this was not fiction. In 2004, a tax-office official in Finland died in exactly the same way while checking tax returns. Although there were about 100 other workers on the same floor and some 30 employees in the auditing department where he worked, it took them two days to notice that he was dead. None of them seemed to feel the loss of his labors; he was only found when a friend stopped by to have lunch with him.

How could no one notice? I talked with over 40 people who spent half of their working hours on private activities—a phenomenon I call “empty labor.” I wanted to know how they did it, and I wanted to know why. "Why" turned out to be the easy part: For most people, work simply sucks. We hate Mondays and we long for Fridays—it's not a coincidence that evidence points towards a peak in cardiac mortality on Monday mornings.

There are, of course, exceptional cases. According to a Gallup report from last year, 13 percent of employees from 142 countries are “engaged” in their jobs. However, twice as many are “actively disengaged”—they’re negative and potentially hostile to their organizations. The majority of workers, though, are simply “checked out,” the report says.

Foot-dragging, shirking, loafing, and slacking are ways of avoiding work within the frames of wage labor. In 1911, Frederick W. Taylor, the notorious founder of “scientific management,” called work avoidance “the greatest evil with which the working-people of both England and America are now afflicted.” His attempts to eradicate slacking set the course of a perpetual cat-and-mouse game, between the time-study men and the worker collective, that would live much longer than the industrial piece-work system.

For Taylor, the project of making the labor process transparent was an important step towards efficiency—not only because it made the optimization of each operation possible, but also because it siphoned power from the worker collective, with its “natural” inclination towards “loafing,” and giving it to management, or as Taylor would have it, to Science. Today, now that the labor process has become opaque in new ways, the “evil” of which Taylor once spoke may have returned for good.

Something that would have surprised Taylor is that slacking is not always the product of discontent, but also of having too few tasks to fill the hours. According to repeated surveys by, not having “enough work to do” is the most common reason for slacking off at work. The service sector offers new types of work in which periods of downtime are long and tougher to eliminate than on the assembly line: A florist watching over an empty flower shop, a logistics manager who did all his work between 2 and 3 p.m., and a bank clerk responsible for a not-so-popular insurance program are some examples of employees I talked with who never actively strived to work less. Like the civil servant of Menden, they offered their services, but when the flow of assignments petered out, they did not shout it from the rooftops.

Many would say that the underworked should talk to their bosses, but that doesn't always help. I spoke with a Swedish bank clerk who said he was only doing 15 minutes' worth of work a day. He asked his manager for more responsibilities, to no avail, then told his boss of his idleness. Did he get more to do? Barely. When I spoke with him, he was working three-hour days—there were laws that barred any workday shorter than that—and his intervention only added another 15 minutes to his workload.

There's a widely held belief that more work always exists for those who want it. But is that true? Everywhere we look, technology is replacing human labor. In OECD countries, productivity has more than doubled since the '70s. Yet there has been no perceptible movement to reduce workers' hours in relation to this increased productivity; instead, the virtues of "creating jobs" are trumpeted by both Democrats and Republicans. The project of job creation hasn't been a complete failure, but the fact of unemployment still looms.

What's more, the jobs that are created often come up short on providing fulfillment. Involuntary slacking may first be conceived of as real bliss: “Hey, I don’t have to work!” one of my interviewees recalls. But as the years pass by, most of us will crave some type of meaningful activity. I interviewed an archivist who wrote his master’s thesis while at work and a subway-ticket collector who composed music in his little booth. If you're lucky, these activities may be pursued within the frame of wage labor—but that's very hard to come by. Our economy produces inequalities in income and job security, but also, we should acknowledge, in stimulation and substance.