(Image credit: Getty)
https://www.bbc.com-By Alex Christian
Rather than quit, more and more employees are happy to just get by and collect their salaries. Is it necessarily a problem?
Edward’s usual workday begins at 0830. He showers, makes breakfast and grabs a coffee – all on company time. During the rest of his morning, the sales employee, who works remotely for a firm based in the north-east of England, periodically checks his inbox, attends the occasional meeting and watches YouTube.
As lunch approaches, Edward cycles to the shop, selects ingredients and cooks a gourmet meal for one. His break soon bleeds into the afternoon: 15-minute bursts of work are interspersed with prolonged bouts of cyberloafing, listening to comedy podcasts and reading (most recently, Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber – a book that explores the modern phenomenon of pointless work). By 1600, he’s typically done for the day. “I’ve completely mentally checked out,” says Edward, whose surname is being withheld for job-security concerns. “Now, I’m just turning my focus to other things and putting myself before work.”
That doesn’t mean Edward is failing at his job or ignoring work; he does whatever his manager needs and, because he always replies to emails and attends scheduled calls, he’s never seen to be late. Rather, he’s decided simply to coast along, on a comfortable salary and in a remote set-up that suits his work-life balance. “Work has been getting on my nerves for a while,” he adds. “So, I’ve been happy to just collect the pay cheque.”
Since Covid-19, employees have quit en masse and sought pandemic-era perks at different companies. In the shake-up, some have switched into careers that align more with their values or offer better pay. But there’s also a subset of the workforce content to just get by without doing much work. Often working remotely without the watchful eyes of bosses, these employees are now putting in 30-hour workweeks on a 40-hour salary. Data suggests the pandemic has made such coasting widespread: a recent survey of 11,000 US workers found 39% were doing it, while a January 2022 study by US analytics firm Gallup shows half of employees say they’re neither engaged nor disengaged at work.
In many cases, employees who coast don’t want to join the Great Resignation – they prefer enjoying the comforts of being a modern-day knowledge worker. Some are also deciding to prioritise other aspects of their life over their career, such as family or wellbeing. But is slacking at work every day really a viable long-term strategy? Or can clocking in-and-out while getting the bare minimum done come with hidden costs?
The rise of coasting
Coasting has always existed in the workplace. But anecdotal evidence suggests it’s become easier, more common and more desirable since 2020. “The pandemic has forced people to think about life, work and family differently,” explains Mark Bolino, director of management and international business at the University of Oklahoma, US. “Much of the workforce has also reassessed how their careers fit into their lives.”
For employees burned out from stress and overwork, coasting has allowed them to slowly recharge while still getting their work done at a more gradual pace. “There’s a limit to how many extra miles you can keep giving at work,” says Bolino. “Otherwise, people get worn out. So, coasting allows people to take a break, recover and then be able to feel ready to go again.”
While Edward is an example of a worker intentionally taking their foot off the gas, others can coast without even realising. “Various pandemic restrictions have placed pressure on many people’s mental health,” says Noelle Murphy, of UK HR resourcing provider XpertHR. “That can have an impact upon their work lives. Many people who coast will be unaware of any negative changes in their behaviour or performance at work.”
Coasting may not even be a case of workers placing less importance on their career, or issues around mental wellbeing, however. Sometimes, employees take it slightly easier at work because of the natural wax and wane of schedules, projects and deadlines. “There’s a natural ebb and flow to work,” says Bolino. “When people feel like they’ve worked hard and achieved a goal, there’s a natural tendency to sort of coast a little to almost recover. Coasting isn’t always necessarily something to be alarmed about.”
You may not always be punished for coasting, but you’re unlikely to ever be rewarded for it – Mark Bolino
Whatever the reason, the current combination of remote work and the tight labour market have made coasting easier than ever before. “It’ll be harder to know what people are doing when they’re working from home,” says Bolino. “And the hiring crisis means organisations may find it tough to replace an employee who is coasting with someone else at the same cost.”
Edward believes his lack of effort has, so far, gone unnoticed. “In sales, it’s quite hard to tell how much work someone is putting in, so I’m kind of just riding off the work I put in previously,” he says. “Who knows if anyone is paying enough attention to realise I haven’t brought in anything new in for a while? My boss hasn’t even got ‘round to setting me targets.”
Addressing the coasting problem
While coasting can easily be dismissed as employee laziness, it often arises out of deeper underlying issues at a company: from a missed promotion, to feeling their contribution isn’t being met with adequate reward.
For example, Edward began coasting after feeling undermined by his boss. “A project I was managing was scrapped without warning,” he explains. “It was something I was proud to work on – it felt like a great career opportunity. I tried to keep my motivation up, but it made me think what I was doing was pointless and a waste of time. I’d say half of the team were already slacking, so I decided to join the gang.”
While engaged employees are highly enthusiastic about their work, and disengaged workers actively pull against their organisation, coasters lie somewhere in between. “Not engaged employees [like coasters] are psychologically unattached to their work and company,” explains Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup, based in Nebraska, US. “Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they put their time, but not energy or passion, into their work.”
For Edward, his decision to coast means he’s not failing, but he’s not hustling either. While he gets the minimum done, he allocates more of his schedule to new hobbies and improving his mental and physical health. “Taking it easy at work has meant I’ve been able to focus more on myself: the gym, nutrition and reading,” he says. “Since I stopped caring, it’s as though a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
Yet doing the bare minimum at work, without expending any more emotional or mental energy than required, can come at a cost. “If you spend most of your day doing things you don’t really enjoy doing, that’s not a great long-term strategy,” says Bolino. Studies have long shown that feeling valued at work is linked to wellbeing and performance; therefore, coasting and a lack of engagement imply a psychological hit. “You ultimately can’t separate wellbeing from your career,” says Wigert. “We find career wellbeing is actually the factor that most strongly affects overall personal wellbeing.”
Coasting can also come with more immediate risks. If a supervisor notices a worker always slacking, that could create long-term implications – especially for an early-career employee. “You may not always be punished for coasting, but you’re unlikely to ever be rewarded for it,” says Bolino.
If an employee feels that their needs aren’t being met at work, Bolino suggests they raise the issue instead of slacking off. “The employer should work with the employee to job-craft and identify the right roles and motivations,” he says. Otherwise, quitting may be better than drifting. “It’s better to find a better fit than find yourself stuck in a role where you’re not demanding the best from yourself.”
Coasting may perhaps be an acceptable short-term move in order for a worker to recharge, step back and plan their next energy burst. But it’s arguably not viable for the long-haul – because of the potential professional and wellbeing impacts on the individual.
Edward only plans to coast a little while longer. After months of taking it easy at his job, he’s recently begun interviewing for new roles. “I’ve given myself more time to think about what I actually want from my career,” he says. “I could sit tight and collect a healthy sum of money. Instead, I’m now actively seeking work again – I can only coast at my job for so long.”