‘Time theft’ and 'productivity paranoia': how HR leaders can drive change


In this article we explore:

  • The increasing monitoring and tracking of employee activity.

  • Why there has been a recent uptake by employers and whether it’s beneficial or a detriment.

  • Productivity paranoia and its adverse effect on employee wellbeing.

  • The concept of ‘time theft’ and what it means for employers.

  • How presenteeism can be mistaken for time theft and why it’s important to recognise the difference.

  • Next steps for organisations concerned about business productivity.

All eyes on employee activity:

According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 35% of Australians would quit their job if they were forced to work in the office full-time.

Emerging from COVID-19, companies are increasingly experiencing financial pressure and the new working dynamic has ignited a need to review business productivity.

Some businesses are using monitoring software to track employee activity, but what are they tracking? Sites visited and keystrokes logged are just two examples.

In an article by a UK publication, Raconteur, research undertaken by Digital.com reveals that employers’ concerns might be justified as it identified that 27% of employees spend up to five hours of their day engaged in non-work-related actions.

Interestingly, research found that when employees were aware they were being monitored their productivity increased by as much as 81%.

From an employer’s point of view, monitoring employee activity would seem beneficial. It provides a good insight into productivity and allows them to see where the gaps are in the workforce.

However, further data indicates that overall business outcomes were not necessarily better. Only the level of activity improved e.g., not letting the monitor go to sleep, etc.

It’s also important that employers cast their minds back to pre-pandemic times when working from home was less common, but was business productivity much higher than it is today?

Contrary to the research undertaken by digital.com, a study by Microsoft and Boston Consulting Group concluded that remote working does not hinder performance and that in most cases the lack of office distractions and long commutes enables employees to have more focus on their tasks in an environment more suitable for their needs.

The answer is not straightforward and there are many pros and cons for a working-from-home environment, but equal consideration needs to be made on the pros and cons of monitoring and tracking employee activity. For example, are employers showing mistrust and avoiding the fundamental issues at play? It can also lead to mental stressors for employees, one of them being productivity paranoia.

Productivity paranoia cracks a workforce:

Productivity paranoia is the fear of leaders who believe there’s a drop in work activity, yet employees say they are productive and are uneasy about their every move being scrutinised.
It creates friction and tension that’s unhealthy and can lead to negative working conditions and fewer optimal business outcomes.

When productivity paranoia creeps into a workplace it can widely affect an employee’s behaviour – typically feelings of resentment, stress, burnout, anxiety, and an inability to focus all become absorbed. This has an adverse impact on productivity and causes a shift in the way people work, with more attention given to ‘appearing busy’ rather than pursuing goals.

Additional impacts of productivity paranoia are an increase in workplace injuries/accidents, physical illness, mental health illness, presenteeism, and absenteeism. This is due to a myriad of issues:

  • a workforce experiencing productivity paranoia is more likely to adopt a more self-centered approach as people strive to keep their jobs under ‘big brother’-like conditions.

  • the mental toll can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and burnout which in turn, can evolve into physical problems. All of which can prevent people from being able to perform their duties.

  • employees under the magnifying glass might feel compelled to continue working despite health or personal issues. Unfortunately, whilst this might seem as though they are just powering through, it’s likely that their performance is suffering as a result, and this can become a vicious cycle if not addressed.

  • lack of motivation and disengagement from colleagues, duties, and creativity.

All the above have costly consequences for organisations, increasing the likelihood of absences (sick days), workers’ compensation claims, and errors and inefficiencies. In addition, the burden other colleagues have to pick up the workload which can have a domino-like effect across the workforce.

If an organisation is concerned about productivity, before surveilling staff and holding them accountable for every second, minute and hour lost, they should first review where presenteeism is prevalent and understand the different factors surrounding it. By addressing these issues, it is likely to produce better outcomes, rather than examining every flicker of an employee’s mouse.

The misunderstood correlation between time theft and presenteeism:

With the uptake in employee monitoring, employers have been keen to tackle low productivity which has resulted in the termination of some employees’ tenure. There have been cases of organisations going as far as claiming ‘time theft’ from their employees in court.

According to the Fair Work Commission, time theft is a serious act of misconduct and if there are no reasonable explanations for its occurrence, employees can owe their employers the earnings lost. Time theft is the time spent on non-work-related activities during their hours of work, such as:

  • Time spent on other devices. Answering messages, and phone calls, scrolling social media, and online shopping.

  • Organising or handling personal-life admin.

  • Extended lunch breaks or multiple breaks throughout the day.

Again, this sounds like another win for organisations, but whilst time theft is unacceptable, employers need to recognise that this behaviour could be a sign of presenteeism which can lead to absenteeism.

An opportunity exists to take meaningful action to reduce and improve the workplace environment to embody a culture of leading, nurturing, and thriving employees.

Seven considerations for HR leaders:

  • Trust and transparency are imperative.
    Let’s face it, few employees like to be micromanaged. It’s a damaging practice that reduces business productivity and causes a lack of confidence and low morale. Trust and transparency are crucial, it helps employees to understand business goals and how their role helps to achieve them. It also creates a sense of belonging, loyalty, and a stronger more respectful relationship between staff and management.

  • Blurred lines.
    In one respect, the pandemic has blurred employer-employee expectations for taking sick leave and the time to recover, employees might be struggling to perform duties but feel like they cannot speak up about their situation. Fostering a positive culture of care is at the core of addressing every aspect of the way presenteeism is viewed and handled by an organisation.

  • Improved presenteeism equals improved financial outcomes.
    In our Waking up to Absence report, we found that improving presenteeism within an organisation often leads to the biggest financial benefit and overall ROI. Addressing presenteeism doesn’t only have a positive impact on an organisation’s overall productivity, but it can significantly improve an organisation’s people insurance premium outcomes.

  • Provide training and communication tools to management.
    The challenge for employers is to provide the same level of communication and activity for employees regardless of if they are at home or at the office. The starting point is the development and implementation of an employee engagement activity plan and/or marketing and communication strategy that aligns with an organisation’s overall business goals and reinforces an accepting culture.

  • Measure results, not activity.
    As established in multiple studies, increased activity does not always mean increased achievements. It’s important that management set quantifiable and achievable KPIs and targets so that employees can concentrate their time and efforts on reaching them, instead of being caught up in hours spent in front of a PC or laptop. Another way that management can support employees is by tailoring duties to their strengths, for example, if someone is good at presentations, ask them to present rather than someone else in the team who perhaps lacks the confidence or is uncomfortable presenting to others. There might also be mental health reasons why certain tasks are unachievable, so employers must make sure employees feel safe to discuss their needs.

  • Assign and promote culture champions.
    Culture champions are a group of people that embody the culture of the company, they promote business goals, advocate for meaningful change, and sing about the successes of their colleagues. Culture champions are viewed as trusted individuals who lead and inspire. By assigning culture champions, employees have another avenue to turn to other than their direct manager.

  • Analyse data and implement well-being benefits.
    Organisations should look at their employee absence data through a total lens rather than a segmented lens, see what patterns are driving absence or lack of productivity in the business, and then target ways to get the best ROI from well-being strategies or identify ways in which to re-engage a dis-affected workforce. It is important not only from a cost-saving perspective, but also to decrease disruptions within teams, and promotes a healthier workplace with a culture that makes individuals feel safe and cared for. These factors are known drivers for long-term employee retention.

To conclude:

Time theft is unacceptable, but overly monitoring employees is detrimental to performance. Productivity paranoia is a harmful way to operate, and it creates further issues such as sickness, presenteeism, and absenteeism. The way forward will be to create an environment that fosters trust between employer and employee and enables employees to succeed in their roles through a number of means which ultimately leads to better business outcomes.