The time you’re wasting on YouTube can be good for your employer

Every moment you spend away from looking at your work is a lost moment you could have been making your employer money. This is the assumption behind many alarmist headlines about the time — and, therefore, money — that employees who enjoy watching fantasy football and TV highlights waste when they watch videos unrelated to work.

In the latest story of this kind, a Bridge survey of 1,000 workers found that employees watched an average of 77 minutes of non-work related videos a day. Using wage data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bridge took that information one step further and calculated that these 77 minutes are costing companies more than $8,800 for each employee and up to $44 million per year.

The benefits of background noise

But this time is only time wasted if you assume that employees need to be spending every moment of their workday glued to their spreadsheets. For many of us, watching videos in the background at work can actually be time well spent.

Studies back up that many of us actually learn best when we have background noise. New research in the Journal of Consumer Research found that moderate noise, like the level of sound you get from turning on the TV, is superior for creative thinking because it’s the noise level most likely to spark the abstract processing in our brains. It follows a separate study that found that white noise can improve our creativity scores.

Recognizing that not all sound is noise helps us understand why our co-workers’ chatter distracts us while talking heads in the background at work do not.

The benefits of being distracted

Of course, these studies don’t absolve slackers at work who are frittering away their days bingeing TV shows when they should be working.

But even if you are watching TV directly on your screen, not just in the background, there are productivity experts who argue that doing tasks unrelated to work are key to doing work. Like elite athletes, we need timeouts from work to surf the web and look at funny YouTube videos, in order to replenish our energy for the second quarter. Our working energy “is best used in spurts where we work hard on a few focused activities and then take a brief respite,” Bob Kustka, the founder of a productivity and time-management firm, puts it.

In other words, we can’t assume that watching videos unrelated to work is a productivity killer, draining employers’ money. Sometimes, watching that cute bird YouTube video is exactly the break your employee needs to complete that PowerPoint presentation in time.