Rather than quitting, an increasing number of employees are content to just get by and collect their paychecks. Is it always a problem?
Edward’s typical workday starts at 0830. On company time, he showers, prepares breakfast, and gets a cup of coffee. Throughout the rest of his morning, the sales employee, who works remotely for a firm in the north-east of England, checks his inbox, attends meetings, and watches YouTube.
As lunchtime approaches, Edward cycles to the store, purchases ingredients, and prepares a gourmet meal for one. His lunch break quickly turns into an afternoon of 15-minute bursts of work interspersed with extended 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). He’s usually done for the day by 1600. “I’ve completely mentally checked out,” Edward says. whose surname has been withheld for reasons of job security. “Now I’m just focusing on other things and putting myself first.”
That doesn’t mean Edward isn’t doing his job or ignoring it; he does whatever his boss requires and is never late because he always responds to emails and attends scheduled calls. Rather, he’s decided to coast along, earning a comfortable salary and working from home, which suits his work-life balance. “Work has been bothering me for a while,” he adds. “So I’ve been content to simply collect the pay cheque.”
Employees have quit in droves since Covid-19, seeking pandemic-era benefits at various companies. Some have changed careers because they are more aligned with their values or pay better. However, there is a subset of workforce content that can get by without doing much work. These employees are now putting in 30-hour workweeks on a 40-hour salary, often working remotely without the watchful eyes of bosses. According to data, the pandemic has made such coasting common: a recent survey of 11,000 US workers found 39% were doing it, while a January 2022 study by US analytics firm Gallup found half of employees are neither engaged nor disengaged at work.
In many instances, Employees who coast do not want to be a part of the Great Resignation; instead, they prefer the conveniences of being a modern-day knowledge worker. Some people choose to prioritise other aspects of their lives over their careers, such as family or health. Is slacking at work every day, however, a long-term strategy? Or are there hidden costs to clocking in and out while doing the bare minimum?
The rise of coasting
Workplace coasting has always existed. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that since 2020, it has become easier, more common, and more desirable. “The pandemic has forced people to reconsider life, work, and family,” says Mark Bolino, director of management and international business at the University of Oklahoma in the United States. “A large portion of the workforce has also reconsidered how their jobs fit into their lives.”
Employees who have become exhausted from stress and overwork have found that coasting allows 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 put in at work,” Bolino says. “Otherwise, people get tired. As a result, coasting allows people to take a break. recuperate and then 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.”