Combating the Mid Afternoon Productivity Lull in the Office

It’s the 3 o’clock lull, a universal experience in the stereotypical office environment. You can see it in the “yawn wave,” as cubicle after cubicle emits a restless sigh or groan. Tired, distracted employees move in their chairs aimlessly. Paper shuffling declines, while keyboard tapping grows faint, and an occasional snore is heard coming from the far corner. Non work related internet activity soars to its daily high as employees subtly visit Facebook, YouTube and online retailers. The day has been long, work has been hard, and departure time is finally in sight.

This mid afternoon increase in employee distractedness and the corresponding decline in productivity is accepted by most employers as commonplace. While observant managers are aware a productivity lull typically occurs as the day grows long, most managers have never actually measured performance variations throughout a given day. When a manager determines the average productivity for an individual within a particular department, this average is usually obtained by examining the productivity of an entire group of employees within that department over a period of at least several weeks. Rarely is productivity examined only by the time of day or by how long in a particular day an employee has been working. As a result, most productivity assessments, by default, mix together periods of higher productivity with lower productivity. Consciously or unconsciously, managers treat the afternoon office lull as an expectation and never stop to consider whether the status quo can be changed, much less improved.

Each workplace is unique; each employee is an individual human being with a complex background and a multitude of influences interacting with them throughout each day. People get tired; employees burn out. If we value our employees as worthful individuals, we cannot hold impossibly high expectations over their heads and insist they nonstop spin their guinea pig wheels until they collapse. It is impossible – assuming your employees are not robots – for your best performing employee to maintain a high level of output each hour of every day and every day of the work week. Employees are not automatons, though some of our mega warehouses servicing the giant internet retailers seem to casually consider them such.

Lulls in individual performance do and will occur. Frequently, within a stereotypical 8am to 5pm office setting, the mid afternoon time period of 3pm to 5pm “owns” the least productive time award. Let’s look first at what may be contributing toward that afternoon lull; secondly, we’ll briefly examine how this lull affects business productivity; and then we’ll propose some possible solutions.

Why does productivity decline later in the afternoon?

a) Fatigue from of sitting at a desk all day. Our bodies were not intended to sit down all day; this can result in poor blood circulation.

b) Fatigue from staring at computer screens all day. Our eyes were not intended to focus at a fixed location (i.e. a computer screen) for a prolonged period of time.

c) Fatigue from a very long and busy day with the stress of a high workload. With the present economy, employees frequently are responsible for not only their own workload but also for that of another employee who may be out of the office ill or on maternity/family leave. Companies are less likely now to hire short term substitutes to help manage the workload; as a result, in some situations, employees are becoming overwhelmed as their workload mountain escalates beyond manageability.

d) Blood sugar may be low. Some employees try to go the full work day with only a minimal midday snack; they eat large breakfasts and very large dinners. Some employees brag about not eating at all while at work, and this can significantly affect alertness, attentiveness, speed, and their ability to be productive. Other employees eat very large midday junk food meals, and their bodies work overtime to manage that intake.

e) Office distractions: Friction & irritation with coworkers or supervisors. With the fresh start of the morning, employees can handle abuse from or minor irritations with coworkers. As the day progresses and fatigue sets in, irritability increases and productivity declines.

f) Home distractions: Employees have issues in their personal lives (marriage, relationship, children, parents, friends) and the dread of returning to that (from their brief escape at the office) begins to return as the day progresses and the time to return home draws near.

How does this lull affect business productivity?

Inevitably, we can’t expect nonstop peak performance from employees 40 hours per week (or, more frequently 50 hrs or even 60 hrs/wk). People get tired, emotions wreak havoc, relationships/family life distracts … it’s all a part of life or, rather, business.

Stress at home equals distraction and decreased productivity in the office. Friction with others in the office also results in distraction and decreased productivity. Lack of physical exercise and poor diet outside the office equals less productivity inside the office, not to speak of higher health care costs for the company. As employees grow weary as the day progresses, their irritability increases, and the probability for conflict with another employee or manager also increases. The end result is that the entire office suffers, productivity falls, and the potential for harmful customer interactions escalates.

Each employee cannot be expected to maintain a high level of output over an extended period of time. As a result, companies develop an average level of output which is the expectation for all employees in a given department. This average level looks at the overall production of a group of employees over a set period of time and provides a baseline expectation.

However, where many companies fail is that they assume the baseline cannot be raised. Companies frequently have low expectations for their employees’ productivity and don’t make reasonable efforts to take steps toward increasing the average level of productivity. Employee productivity can be increased; however, the steps to accomplish that require creativity, dedicated funding, and a willingness on the part of employees & management to experiment in order to find success. Managers must care about the well being of their employees and strategically invest into each employee in order to raise the performance bar.

How can managers prevent this afternoon lull and boost energy, attention and engagement?

a) Encourage healthy eating

  • Provide healthy food breaks; stock the snack room with fruit or healthy food bars (120 – 160 calories).
  • Remove soda, candy bars and other performance killers from vending machines. Replace with healthy alternatives.
  • Bring a nutritionist into the workplace to regularly educate employees regarding the benefits of small meals throughout the day and the value of a healthy diet in contrast with the side effects of a junk food diet.
  • Encourage regular water drinking through providing visible & easily accessible water coolers with cups.
  • Don’t rely on caffeine, caffeine substitutes, or sugar for the artificial pick me up.

b) Promote invigorating breaks

  • A quiet “nap room” with comfortable chairs, dim lighting, white balance sound or calm music for power naps.
  • A fitness room with treadmills, exercise bikes, climbing & skiing exercise machines.
  • Yoga or alternate relaxation/meditation break.
  • Electric massage chairs.
  • Game room with pool, bumper pool, foosball, table hockey, and other game tables.
  • Indoor swimming pool.
  • Showers – some employees find a mid afternoon shower helps rejuvenate them.

c) Provide an enjoyable office environment

  • Monitor and maintain good air quality, paying careful attention to the oxygen & moisture levels.
  • Bring a lighting specialist in to provide recommendations for the best lighting.
  • Monitor temperature carefully; if the temperature is too cold or too hot, employees will be too distracted to be very productive; if the temperature gradually increases throughout the day, employees will begin to become drowsy.
  • Examine the sound level at different locations throughout the office. Is it too quiet or too loud? Should some white noise be added or measures taken to absorb some of the excessive/annoying noises?
  • Use varying mild odors for stimulation, keeping in mind that certain odors will annoy certain people and, over time, repetitive use of particular odors may negate any benefits they may initially have provided.
  • Have a physical therapist come by to evaluate the overall ergonomics of the office, examining desks, monitor placement, chairs, etc.

d) Encourage emotional, mental & spiritual health

  • Make available a counselor/psychologist to help with inter office conflicts and family situations.
  • Take advantage of organizations offering corporate chaplain services for offering spiritual counseling.
  • Train managers and employees to be encouraging and constructive in their relationships with each other.
  • Offer anger management sessions.
  • Provide a financial counselor to advise employees stressed with personal financial bondage.
  • Promote taking time to spend with family and friends. Don’t let employees think that overworking will result in favoritism for pay raises and new positions.
  • Make the office an enjoyable atmosphere, one employees can look forward to coming to each day, one where they will be challenged and where they can make friendships.
  • Reward your employees financially as well as by letting them know that they are indeed making valuable contributions to the company and that they are considered valuable by their coworkers and supervisors.
  • Develop creative ways to tangibly express your appreciation for your employees.

e) Be open and caring through asking employees for feedback and suggestions on how to increase afternoon productivity.

f) Hire a comedian to come by every afternoon.

Concluding Thoughts

The baseline for employee productivity does not have to be a stagnant, immovable barrier. However, for managers to raise the bar of productivity, they must be willing to intentionally invest into each of their employees and raise the bar for company culture.

How does your company combat the mid-afternoon productivity lull? Do you have some fresh and original ideas for boosting workplace energy, attention and engagement? Please share them in the comments below.

Photo credits: Top © lev dolgachov / Fotolia. Second © Hanik / Fotolia. Third © Aramanda / Fotolia. Fourth © Dash / Fotolia. Fifth © Aleksandr Markin / Fotolia.  Bottom © Phase4Photography / Fotolia.

About Andrew Jensen

Andrew Jensen, a business growth, efficiency & marketing consultant, provides business advisory services for clients in the Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; York, Hanover, Lancaster & Harrisburg, PA regions. Andrew advises regarding business growth, productivity, efficiency, business startups, customer service, and online/offline marketing. Follow Andrew on Google+


  1. I work in a start-up environment so we don’t have much of the afternoon lulls but still the occasional food coma after lunch. But it helps because we sell healthier options of snacks (which we take and eat for ourselves haha) so at least we’re not making the food coma even worse. LOVE the idea of having a comedian. It’s definitely something new and who wouldn’t want a good laugh! All in all, this was a really interesting read and loved the points you made!

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