March 20, 2024

March Madness can have compelling advantages, daunting costs for businesses, SIU prof says

by Christi Mathis

Steve_Karau-sm1.jpgCARBONDALE, Ill. — Cheering on your favorite team during March Madness can produce a lot of fun and camaraderie but also prove costly to businesses as a result of lost work time and productivity, says Steve Karau, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale professor of management who has studied cyberloafing.

“March Madness can add enjoyment and bonding potential to the workplace but also has the potential for distraction, reduced productivity and even safety concerns if it gets out of control or isn’t handled appropriately” said Karau.

Media availability

SIU Carbondale Professor of Management Steve Karau is available for interviews. He can be reached at

Weighing it out

Karau says the positives include:

  • The potential to produce bonding and cohesion in the workplace, increasing employee satisfaction. Because the tournament is rather short-lived, many businesses may tolerate a short-term loss of productivity because of the benefits.
  • Finding a way. Some surveys indicate that most employees say they still get their work done, even if they get distracted for a bit by the tournament.
  • The chance for employees to refresh mentally, becoming more productive. Karau said numerous studies show that happy, satisfied employees are more committed and more likely to remain on the job. And things like fun sports conversations with colleagues can improve workplace engagement.

The potentially costly downsides include:

  • March Madness activities can be a significant workplace distraction contributing to cyberloafing, said Karau, who has researched the problem extensively. Studies have found the average American reports wasting more than two work hours daily, mostly on personal internet use, including an estimated 90% of employees surfing non-work websites and 84% sending personal emails during work time. Karau notes that one study put the annual estimated price tag for this productivity loss at between $54 billion and $85 billion. Economic analyses have estimated losses associated with March Madness may total some $134 million or more in wages and $1.9 billion to $13.3 billion in productivity. Karau and his students are involved in ongoing research regarding various aspects of cyberloafing and workplace behavior.
  • Workplace exclusion or ostracism of some employees who may feel left out or clueless if they don’t jump on board the March Madness bandwagon.
  • Employees failing to get required work done, which could cause harm to the business or result in actual danger to themselves or other employees.
  • Diminished attention to customers and clients. In the service industry, customers may take their business elsewhere. In some workplaces, such as factory line work, security positions, and health and safety careers, the distractions could actually result in injury or death to the worker or others.

The addiction is real

But why does March Madness so easily draw people in, even becoming addictive in some cases? Numerous elements and psychological phenomena are at work, Karau said, including:

  • The tournament structure, including the prestige, visibility, knockout format and potential for upset victories.
  • Social identification. Rooting for a team (“us”) against a competitor (“them”) increases one’s personal identification with the team.
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO) on life or social events others are interested in.
  • Basking in reflected glory (BIRGing) or enjoying one’s affiliation with a successful team.
  • Escalation of commitment. Spending time, effort and money following a team increases one’s commitment over time.

“March Madness has fascinating implications both for human behavior and workplace productivity, with a host of possible positive and negative consequences,” Karau said.