Procrastination at work. The cost to an organization and how to support employees with procrastination?

We’ve all done it. Known we have a million things to do, at work, home and in life, yet stare blankly at the screen or walls, unable to muster up the enthusiasm to get on with the tasks we know we have to do. It’s called procrastination. Whether it’s avoiding household chores, being unable to set priorities, or struggling with focusing on long term goals over more immediately enjoyable activities, procrastination is a common symptom of modern life. Yet for some people it’s more prevalent, and can in fact be debilitating. Procrastination affects employees and leaders alike in any workplace, regardless of their role or industry, and can be the result of many different factors. Some people are more likely to procrastinate than others, and one study found it was more prevalent (although not exclusive to) young people and associated with high levels of perceived stress, depressiveness, anxiety, fatigue and reduced life satisfaction. Habitual procrastination affects 1 in 5 people, according to Psychology Today.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing tasks or decisions to a later time, despite knowing that there may be negative consequences for doing so and push long term rewards further out of reach. It is a common behavior that affects many people to varying degrees and in different aspects of their lives, including work, school, and personal responsibilities. Procrastination is not simply a matter of poor time management or laziness, as often misconceived; it’s a complex psychological behavior that involves the interplay of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors.

Key characteristics of procrastination include:

  • Delaying tasks – choosing to do something else instead of the task that needs to be done, even though this delay can lead to stress, anxiety, feelings of guilt, and sometimes even serious consequences. It can be everything from not going for a run although the long term benefits are clear or putting off important tasks at work that will help you progress. 
  • Awareness – procrastinators are aware of the negative outcomes that may result from not completing the task on time, yet still choose to postpone it. A common procrastination behavior is to dwell on why someone should do something, rather than do it.
  • Irrationality – the decision to procrastinate is often irrational, as it goes against a person’s own best interest by prioritizing short-term comfort or pleasure over long-term goals or obligations. They may start off with good intentions, but human behavior means that they lean away from unpleasant tasks and are prone to putting things off when they don’t bring immediate satisfaction.
  • Chronic vs. situational – for some, procrastination can be a chronic issue affecting many areas of life, while for others, it might be situational or task-specific.

Why do people procrastinate?

Psychological factors of procrastination

Many individuals procrastinate because they fear the outcome of their efforts will not be good enough, leading to criticism or failure and a sense of low self esteem. They feel better having not tried and so they cannot fail. A sense of low self efficacy and a lack of belief in one’s inability to perform tasks successfully can lead to procrastination. If individuals doubt their capabilities, they might delay or avoid starting tasks they believe they cannot complete satisfactorily. Some of this can be due to perfectionism. Perfectionists often procrastinate because they want everything to be perfect. The pressure they put on themselves to achieve unattainable standards can lead to a fear of starting or completing tasks, knowing that their inner critic means that they feel overwhelmed by fear. This fear can paralyze decision-making and action-taking.

People who have difficulty in managing impulses and emotions can also be serial procrastinators. They are more likely to choose immediate pleasure or distraction over long-term achievement, and so put off tasks that don’t feel great in that immediate moment. Emotional regulation and impulse control plays a significant role, as individuals often procrastinate to avoid negative emotions associated with a task, such as anxiety, boredom, or frustration.

Emotional factors of procrastination

People with high levels of anxiety and stress can find that starting tasks seems daunting, leading individuals to avoid tasks as a coping mechanism. Given that a third of employees have symptoms of anxiety and depression that warrant clinical investigation, the procrastination habit is more prevalent than we might realize. 

If a task is perceived as boring, difficult, or unenjoyable, the natural response for many is to avoid it –  studies show we don’t procrastinate on things that feel positive for us. The less intrinsically rewarding a task feels, the more likely it is to be postponed. This is a natural response but can be a self-defeating behavior pattern as the thing that will give long term reward is delayed. 

Situational factors of procrastination

Where we get our motivation from makes a difference. When the motivation to perform a task is external (e.g., to avoid punishment) rather than internal (e.g., personal growth or satisfaction), individuals may be more inclined to procrastinate. This is why we often end up focusing on what seem to be urgent tasks rather than the important ones on our to-do list, that will actually help with achieving our goals, whether they be at work, based on physical health, or improving our wellbeing.

Tasks that are unclear or lack a defined structure can lead to procrastination because individuals may not know where to start or what is expected of them. That’s why it’s important to set clear briefs and tasks where possible to prevent procrastination.

A lack of effective time management skills can lead to procrastination. Individuals may overestimate the time they have to complete tasks or underestimate the time tasks will take. Or they try to do too many things at once, which is proven to be ineffective and not actually make it easier to finish any of them.

The presence of distractions, especially in the digital age (e.g., social media, emails, internet browsing), can make procrastination easier and more tempting. It’s so simple for even the most organized people to pick up their phone and start scrolling or click on a new window. One study found that our tendency to say do online shopping in the office is highly correlated with our engagement at work and meaning associated with our role.

Procrastination can also be a way to avoid the discomfort associated with certain tasks, whether that discomfort is boredom, anxiety, or the fear of failure. Delaying the task provides temporary relief from these unpleasant feelings.

What are the impacts of procrastination at work?

Procrastination at work can have significant costs to an organization, both in terms of financial losses and reduced productivity. 

Procrastination can lead to delays in project completion, affecting overall productivity. Employees who procrastinate often rush to complete tasks at the last minute, which can compromise the quality of their work.

Delays in decision-making or project completion can result in missed opportunities for the organization. In a fast-paced business environment, timing can be crucial for success. And time spent procrastinating is essentially time wasted. This misallocation of human resources can lead to increased costs for organizations, as they may need to hire additional staff or pay overtime to meet deadlines. Procrastination can therefore strain professional relationships and personal ones as people feel stressed at home. Delays and unmet deadlines can create tension and frustration among team members, affecting teamwork and collaboration.

At the same time, procrastination can lead to increased stress levels among employees, especially as deadlines approach. This stress can affect employee wellbeing and contribute to a negative work environment. This stress can be chronic for habitual procrastinators, affecting their overall mental wellbeing.The chronic stress associated with procrastination, especially in high-pressure work environments, can lead to burnout. This state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion can significantly affect an employee’s health and productivity.

Regular procrastination can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. Employees might doubt their abilities and skills, leading to decreased self-esteem and a lower sense of self-efficacy. The ongoing cycle of procrastination and the stress and negative feelings it engenders can contribute to symptoms of depression. The sense of being overwhelmed and unable to meet expectations can exacerbate these feelings.

How can employers tackle procrastination at work?

Overcoming procrastination is not always easier but there are a number of ways that employees and leaders can help their team members feel confident, engaged and motivated in their work and beat procrastination.

Break it down

Encourage employees to set clear, achievable goals and create detailed plans for accomplishing tasks. Breaking larger projects into smaller, manageable parts can help reduce the overwhelm that often leads to procrastination. Even simply making a to-do list, and encouraging people to plan ahead for their day, week, or month, can help people manage their workload and tackle tasks more efficiently and effectively. 

As well as favorite tools such as Trello or ClickUp, employers can offer training on time management techniques. This can include teaching employees how to prioritize tasks, use scheduling tools, and adopt methods such as the Pomodoro Technique or time blocking to manage their time more effectively.

Work to strengths

Some people don’t cope well with large tasks, or have self doubt about important pieces of work. It’s important to help people identify their strengths, and feel good about them, and be aware of where they may need more support. Wysa has a particular toolpack that helps people do just this, so that they know what they are good at and can leverage the personality trait or traits that will help them perform at their best. Focusing on the positive aspects of yourself can help increase enthusiasm and focus. Assess yourself toolpack helps users locate their energy, understand their motivation and find their boredom type so that they can use this knowledge to fight procrastination. Offering flexible work arrangements can help employees work at times when they feel most productive, which can help reduce procrastination. Giving employees control over their work hours can reduce stress and enable them to work during their most productive times, helping to mitigate procrastination.

Look at the culture

Foster a work culture that is psychologically safe and encourages open communication and support. Employees should feel comfortable discussing their challenges with procrastination without fear of judgment or repercussions. Rather than criticize people about their self-discipline or self-regulation which will add more stress, speak to them about ways that you can help people manage their workload, focus on problem-solving, break work into manageable chunks, and one where they are free to ask for help. Implement regular check-ins between managers and employees. These can provide opportunities for employees to discuss any challenges they’re facing, including those related to procrastination and mental health.

Use teamwork

One great way to tackle procrastination is to use accountability. Establish a system where employees can hold each other accountable, such as through peer review or mentorship programs. Knowing that others are relying on them can motivate employees to manage their time better. These can be both online and offline, enabling you to support hybrid employees as well as those office-based.

Look at bigger issues

Sometimes, procrastination is a symptom of deeper issues such as fear of failure, perfectionism, or lack of engagement. Offering access to counseling services or career development opportunities can help employees address these underlying issues. But it can also be a systemic issue in the organization. If your company is highly competitive and fast paced, and does not feel supportive or offer a sense of psychological safety, it can result in people procrastinating as a result of stress and even burnout. Encourage employees to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life. This can help reduce stress and prevent burnout, making it easier for employees to manage their time effectively.

Use your EAP

Provide access to mental health resources, such as counseling services or employee assistance programs (EAPs). These resources can offer support for employees struggling with the mental health effects of procrastination.You may also offer programs that teach mindfulness, meditation, and stress management techniques, all of which are available in Wysa. These can help employees develop healthier coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety.

Address procrastination

It’s important not to avoid the topic of procrastination, and instead offer education and training on how to tackle both mild and chronic procrastination. Wysa’s productivity pack helps employers organize both professional and personal tasks, provides strategies to focus your motivation and helps them and you understand procrastination.

Procrastination can be a problem for individuals and businesses but with the right strategies and approach, it is something that can be addressed. If you would like to know more about how Wysa can help, do get in touch.

Image: ‘Portrait of Brown Haired Woman Using Phone in Office’ by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels, Canva. Accessed March 2024.
wall street