Lost Productivity Due to March Madness? It’s Just Another Office Fairy Tale

John Hollon Driving Productivity, employee experience, Employee Relations, Managing People

As someone who has spent a lifetime as a journalist, take it from me: the state of today’s media is pretty terrible.

But public relations is pretty bad too, and some of the worst PR has to be from those who do their damndest to make an overblown case for some supposed workplace issue that’s going to cause a great calamity for employers and employees everywhere.

Problem is, most of these so-called “problems” aren’t much of an issue for most anyone at all.

Here’s the most recent one that got pitched to me this past week, and the headline used to grab my attention says it all: Why March Madness Costs Companies Billions Due to Employee Distraction and Poor Productivity.”

Here’s the so-called “problem”

Well, the good news for the PR person who sent it my way is that it certainly DID grab my attention, but unfortunately, it grabbed me for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s the gist of the so-called “problem,” from the press release:

“Recent statistics reveal that March Madness has become more popular than ever before, thanks in large part to the worldwide betting that takes place. Over 60 million people are expected to fill out brackets this year, with an estimated $10 million being put on the table. However, there is another cost which people may not expect: A downturn in employee productivity.

“March Madness can be a drain on a company’s time and resources,” says Rob Wilson, employment trends expert and President of Employco USA. “With millions of Americans filling out brackets and managing their bets, you can bet that employee productivity takes a hit during this time of year.”

In fact, research shows that lost wages caused by employee distraction and poor productivity during March Madness could amount to losses of up to $1.9 billion!”

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Well, it DOES sound bad — until you drill down into the research.

Bogus issue, bogus problem

March Madness — the real kind, and not what my FOT colleague Mark Fogel wrote about that was happening at SHRM last week — refers to the annual Men’s and Women’s national college basketball tournaments that take place in March. There are office betting pools that frequently pop up around it, just like there are for the Super Bowl, but in all the workplaces I have been in, these are fairly minor and hardly what you would call a workplace disruption that impacts productivity.

But what about the research that claims there is nearly $2 billion in lost productivity due to March Madness activities?

When you dig into the link to the evidence of this “problem” that the press release cites, it takes you to a Wall Street Journal story from 2015 that questions the $1.9 billion figure in lost productivity due to March Madness, and it attributes the estimate to Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Brian Hershberg of the WSJ points out that “Challenger says its estimate is based on the number of working Americans who are likely to spend time filling out and updating so-called brackets, watching games, checking scores and generally obsessing over college basketball.”

As you look closer at the “estimates” Challenger used to get to the $1.9 billion in lost productivity number, however, you find that the “estimates” are not only sloppy but also terribly out of date.

For example, The Journal points out that the productivity losses are based on “a 1997 estimate from the National Collegiate Athletic Association that 22.9 million Americans are college-basketball fans. It combined that with a stat from WebSense, an Internet monitoring firm, that college-hoops fans with office Internet hookups spend an average of 13 minutes a day surfing the Web about the sport during March Madness.”

How can a 2020 press release tout a workplace productivity issue based on a 1997 estimate? Would you and your organization base anything you’re doing today on a 1997 ESTIMATE?

You know the answer to that, but this is just a long way of saying the the entire notion of huge nationwide productivity problems because of a big college basketball tournament is overblown at best and totally bogus at worst.

Consider me in the “bogus” camp.

“Little better than a guess”

As the former Wall Street Journal Numbers Guy columnist Carl Bialik wrote back in 2005:

“The productivity stat is little better than a guess. … ‘It’s kind of a fun study,” John Challenger, chief executive of the company, told me. “It is a way of getting at the issues” of workplace productivity.’ But why does the press report studies whose authors don’t take them that seriously?

Challenger now provides all sorts of estimates based on common metrics of college basketball enthusiasts, but the same kinds of issues with the productivity figures remain today. And media outlets still pick up on the report.

Why? Because the Internet is infinite, the headlines are alluring and the clicks are real. But at least we know to go in with a grain of salt.”

Yes, at the end of the day this is just a fake and massively overblown workplace issue created to generate PR interest and online clicks — so take it with a very big grain of salt.

Don’t we have REAL work issues to solve?

Here’s my take: There are plenty of real problems in our 21st Century workforce, and plenty of real issues surrounding worker productivity, so this makes me wonder — why do we need to drum up bogus workplace issues to tout when we have so many real ones to deal with?

You know the answer to that — we don’t, but a lot of PR people use these events to help push workplace “experts” who are paying them to get their names out there. Hooking the pitch to March Madness is certainly timely, and a good hook, but it assumes that journalists and editors are brain-dead idiots who will just take the press release and run with it, no questions asked.

Given the terrible state of today’s media, that’s probably not a bad bet.

I won’t name (and embarrass) the person who was pitched as the expert to talk about lost productivity due to March Madness, but they’re touted in the press release as a “employment trends expert ” and president of an HR outsourcing firm. Here’s hoping they figure out quickly that they just wasted good money on a demonstratively bad PR effort.

We have lots of problems in this country, and lots of workforce issues that truly demand our attention. My fear is that the important stuff we really should be talking about is getting drowned out by bogus PR crap like lost productivity due to March Madness.

Just keep that in mind the next time you see something like this in your social media feed. Just because it’s good clickbait doesn’t make it a serious issue.