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Why we should be 'coasting' at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Office co-workers. Photo: Fuse/Getty

If you’ve ever felt like you’re doing just the right amount of work to get by comfortably – not to little, not too much – then you aren’t alone. Last year, a survey of 3,000 people found a third say they’re “coasting” at work.

At face value, admitting to coasting in the workplace seems like a bad thing. Unlike others, who are putting in extra hours every day and tearing their hair out with stress, you’re plodding along, leaving on time when you’ve finished your day’s work. But is that really such a terrible thing?

First, coasting along isn’t the same as slacking off. According to the survey, there are two types of coasters – those who make the conscious decision to do so, and those where it comes down to something not working with the employer or the job role.

If you’re content with your job, doing your set hours and successfully getting your work done, then coasting might not be such a bad thing at all, particularly if you want to focus on other things in your life.

“Coasting at work is something that maybe at different points in your career or life, could be ideal, if managed correctly,” says Evelyn Cotter, founder of SEVEN Career coaching. “It’s obviously something that can take many forms too, so fully coasting at work or having seasonal periods or downtimes when you can coast and other times where you’re required to push are all dependent on what you do, and where.

“If you’ve got young children, or are doing an MBA by night or further study, caring for an elderly relative, have a side hustle for instance, or other priorities where your energy and focus are needed, having a fairly straight forward work-life gives you the stability, security to progress, push or focus elsewhere.

“Everything in life and careers happens in cycles, and earlier in our careers, usually we’re growing a lot, needing to learn more, push more and prove ourselves more and having a phase where that’s not necessarily the focus, makes a lot of sense.”

Despite this, it’s easy to see why coasting gets such a bad reputation. We live in an age where being “busy” is a status symbol – the busier we are, the more impressive we appear to others. And when we tell others how busy we are, it’s more of a boast rather than a complaint.

In 2016, researchers at Columbia and Harvard explored this issue by analysing thousands of “humblebrag” Tweets from celebrities, and found 12% were about being busy. For example, commenting about “having no life” or needing a holiday.

The researchers then created a fictional Facebook account of a woman and asked people to look at her posts. When she posted about being busy and working lots, people thought she had higher status and more money than if she posted about her leisure time.

But are we really any busier than we used to be, or do we just feel busier? According to various reports, most of us are working fewer hours than we used to and we’re taking more holidays.

There are, however, factors which make us feel busier. The sheer volume of modern distractions – social media, emails, WhatsApp and more – can make life feel much busier than it actually is. And instead of working nine-to-five, we’re now checking our emails at 10pm and replying to messages at 7am. A lot of the time, we end up busying ourselves with tasks that don’t really need doing –highlighting the fact that being busy doesn’t equate to being productive.

It’s important to note that being overburdened with work is rarely a positive thing. Working long hours and taking on too much work – and struggling under internal pressure – can lead to burnout, a state of chronic stress affecting two out of three employees, according to a recent Gallup poll.

And while we often take on too much to prove ourselves, being overworked can actually harm your career prospects – as taking on too many responsibilities can lead to poor quality, rushed or unfinished work. Rather than impressing your manager, increased work intensity can lead to “inferior work outcomes”, researchers at City University reported last year.

There are, however, some drawbacks to coasting along at work. Cotter points out that it’s easy to fall into a “comfort trap” if you are under-stimulated or disinterested in your job or career. Likewise, you can “overstay” in a job or slip into a career rut, which can impact self-worth and confidence.

“Not everyone wants or needs to be constantly achieving and that’s ok, it’s about understanding yourself and your needs, if you are conscious and strategic about your coasting phase and how it fits into a bigger career/life plan, then it’s all gravy, but if it’s not something you’re actively managing and choosing, I would be wary,” she adds.

Instead of coasting full-time, you could coast for two days a week and push yourself for three, to get a better balance.

“Bad habits are formed when we get into a routine of just doing the bare minimum and those habits won’t serve you well in the mid-long-term and you’ll likely get a rude awakening when things pick up again or you move role,” Cotter says.

Whether or not coasting is beneficial also depends on your personality type. “For high-achievers, coasting is not an option, just because their personality and character will become depressed if they are not adequately achieving and stimulated, but not everyone fits this camp,” Cotter explains.