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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Want to help employees make time for themselves? Surprise them!

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Claire Tsai

When people win the lottery, they are more likely to spend that money on something fun, rather than putting it in savings or paying down debt. It turns out, people are the same way when they unexpectedly gain some extra time but not when they have anticipated it.

In a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in July, researchers — including Jaeyeon Chung, Leonard Lee, Donald R. Lehmann and Rotman School of Management’s professor of marketing Claire I. Tsai — found that when students or employees unexpectedly gain free time, they are more likely to spend it doing something fun or relaxing, rather than catching up on work.

“There have been a lot of studies and tests into windfall gains of currency, but there haven’t been any studies on windfall time,” says Tsai. “But time is a very important currency, if not more important than money.”

Through two pilot studies, two field studies and three online studies, the researchers learned that simply gaining extra time doesn’t necessarily guarantee people will spend it leisurely.

Two pilot studies looked at how college students spent newly gained free time after unexpected school closures (the first due to a strike in 2017 in Ontario, Canada, and the second due to weather-related school closures in the U.S.). Follow-up studies explored how students in the U.S. and workers in the U.K. spent their time gained as a result of COVID lockdowns. And online surveys further polled various participants about how newfound time was spent.

The researchers consistently found that when people knew they’d gain back some time extra time in advance (such as through the planned cancellation of a weekly meeting), they were much more likely to use it for “productive” activities, such as completing chores, taking additional training, or answering emails. But if the “found” time was unplanned or unexpected (such as a snow day), they might do something fun and prioritize themselves, such as cooking a meal, taking a bath, or reading a book.

Tsai stresses this wasn’t true 100 per cent of the time — no matter how surprised the participants or respondents were, people who are under great time pressure would use their time windfall for work. Overall, study participants used roughly 60 per cent of the windfall time for fun and the remaining 40 per cent for work. When participants knew about additional free time in advance, those numbers reversed.

“Windfalls are more typically associated with fun and pleasure so it seems fitting to spend them on fun. Moreover, windfall time feels like cost-free, so people can spend it the way that they want without having to justify it,” says Tsai.

Ultimately, spending that time leisurely might be healthy. “A lot of the things they do during the windfall time is to take care of themselves,” Tsai says. And because people often won’t take care of themselves without a little push, there are ways managers can help their employees take a break and avoid burnout, she adds.

Since surprise is a key element for this windfall success, Tsai suggests employers could try a “lottery” system. For example, managers could randomly choose 10 per cent of their workforce to leave early on a Friday afternoon, allowing the company to still operate at reasonable capacity and give people a chance to take a break and care for their mental health. 

Or it could be as simple as giving people unexpected short breaks randomly.

“From our research, windfall gains can be as short as half an hour,” says Tsai. “If you want your employees to really take care of themselves and make them happy, then this could be a token of your appreciation for their hard work.”


Claire Tsai is a professor of marketing and a co-founder of the Behavioural Economics in Action Research cluster at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.