Review: The shirk ethic – a user’s guide

November 28, 2014

By Martin Langfield

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

Work can be seen as a blessing or a curse. In his book “Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance,” Swedish sociologist Roland Paulsen examines people who take mostly the latter view, asking how and why they shirk, and whether it’s always a bad thing. His study of idleness on the job is enlightening, amusing and sad.

“Empty labor,” as Paulsen defines it, is everything you do during work hours that is not what you are paid to do. Different studies – he cites almost a dozen, focused mainly on the United States but also looking at Germany, Finland and Singapore – suggest the average amount of time per employee that’s dedicated to such activities, especially noodling on the internet, is between 1.5 and 3 hours a day.

To be sure, many hard-working, productive people carve out time for personal business while at work. There are also bathroom breaks. Paulsen, a post-doctoral research fellow at Sweden’s Lund University, is interested in the extreme practitioners of what he terms “time appropriation,” including some whose efforts to avoid labor approach the Herculean.

Real shirking at work is hard to study because by its nature it is hidden, Paulsen writes. Indeed he notes that a Swedish word for foot-dragging or doing nothing while at work is “maskning,” which can also mean hiding. To get around this problem, Paulsen interviewed 43 people who self-identify as spending at least half their working hours shunning work. He also mined a survey of 1,077 adults on the topic, carried out for a Finnish newspaper in 2010, and reviewed sociological studies of work and news reports about slacking around the world.

In addition to questionable internet use – he cites a recent case of some Swedish Civil Aviation Administration employees who were found to spend up to 75 percent of their working hours visiting pornographic websites – Paulsen discusses activities that range from completing a master’s thesis during work hours to rigging a call center’s systems to make fake calls, and nobbling survey results to make managers look bad.

Such ingenuity suggests that in some cases, companies host dedicated and capable people who are in the wrong jobs. Doing nothing while at work “can be a very demanding activity requiring planning, collaboration, risk calculation, and ethical consideration,” Paulsen notes.

There is also a user’s guide to slacking. Pick as opaque a job as possible, he suggests, and shroud what you actually do in further mystery. Camouflage your inactivity with “cover” projects that let you turn down additional work. Seek out like-minded souls who can provide early warning of approaching managers. Allies may be found in unusual places – he cites the case of a supervisor who would collect his staff’s ID cards before letting them leave early, clock them out at the due time then meet them outside their workplace the next morning so they could all clock in again.

Paulsen draws on pop culture such as Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” cartoons and black humor about workplace absurdity to leaven some heavy-duty analysis. At times the bleakness is extreme. He cites a Finnish tax official who died at the office in 2004 while checking tax returns. No one noticed for two days.

Paulsen’s interviewees are a small group. His own data and subjects skew Scandinavian, though his observations resonate further afield. The author is open about his disdain for what he terms the Calvinist work ethic, but also about his surprise at not finding more instances of politically conscious resistance to the very notion of work in modern capitalist societies.

To that extent, “Empty Labor” undermines the author’s own prejudices. His subjects’ motives for slacking tend more toward the personal, fueled by boredom, anger or a wish simply not to put work at the center of life. Others express a longing to humanize overly regimented workplaces or a desire for revenge against colleagues and bosses.

His extreme cases entertain, perhaps, because they represent a fantasy for most people, who plug away at their jobs less rebelliously, or even – Calvin forfend! – enjoy their work.

One comment

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No mention of many people who are often or regularly on standby for some busy or peak work period? To me, unrealistic to expect 100% daily time focused on “billable” hours, to various jobs, and how is this addressed? Those bathroom or other breaks, and indeed even the web surfing or cross-functional talk with other team members can be good for the company too, right?

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