World Cup 2018: Whoever Wins, Do Businesses Lose?

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Soccer Football - World Cup - Quarter Final - England fans watch Sweden vs England - FIFA Fan Fest, Moscow, Russia - July 7, 2018 England fans react during the game. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

Another World Cup, another wave of articles fretting over lost productivity. This time around, we’ve got a study from Statistica that reveals which countries are most “at risk” of losing productivity due to matches falling within working hours.

There’s also bookkeepers William Hill, who have taken data on GDP and individual hours worked and divided it by a percentage of the workforce likely to be less productive. According to their calculations, the UK could be set to lose £3.2 billion if England win the World Cup.

Are articles like these to be believed?

Since something like “productivity” is so abstract, it’s hard to grasp whether businesses in World Cup-competing nations should truly be braced for an unproductive quarter.

How much productivity are nations set to lose?

Before we can figure out how much businesses might lose, we have to establish how productive workers themselves actually are. That can be tricky. The OECD’s GDP per hour appears to be a good place to start. This is an average calculated based on a number of factors, but ultimately it is meant to show how much each employed individual contributes to a nation’s GDP each hour.

Issues with using this calculation to judge “productivity” arises as soon as you look at the diagram. Irish workers’ productivity appears to have skyrocketed since 2014, while Greek worker productivity has been majorly in decline since 2010. Clearly, this calculation is severely affected by a country’s economic standing — something that depends on far more than how productive workers are.

Despite the unclear method of measurement, it does intuitively make sense to assume that the World Cup will be a major distraction for workers. Studies like William Hill’s only portend to offer a guideline for how much each nation could stand to lose; they are not meant to be ironclad predictions. And that’s fine. If half of the UK’s employees do tune into every England game, it’s entirely possible that their lack of concentration — not to mention incessant hangovers — will lead to the hypothetical £3.2 billion productivity loss.

But this only tells one side of the story.

Could the World Cup actually increase productivity?

A month of football matches, some of which take place during working hours, others which will produce hangovers and excitement lasting well into the next day, sounds like every strict employers’ worst nightmare. Some argue it doesn’t have to be.

Frances O’Grady of the UK’s Trades Union Congress has urged businesses to grant employees flexible working hours in order to let them watch World Cup matches and work the lost time on other days. According to O’Grady, “allowing people more flexibility in how and when they do their work makes them happier and more productive.”

This approach certainly solves the problem of lost time. But perhaps the major problem with calculating lost productivity in the first place is the idea that time is directly related to worker output.

In recent years, there has been increasing evidence that reduced working hours actually make people more productive. A 2016 survey found that six-hour workdays reduced employee sickness, stress and idleness. Most of us will have experienced days where we’re physically at work, sitting at our desks, but where our actual output is severely limited. For these periods, it would make more sense for us to be out of the office, doing something else we enjoy. And during the World Cup, that something else could be watching the football.

Once again, it’s impossible to definitively prove how much productivity could be gained by letting football fans watch instead of work. But it’s highly plausible that it could be effective.

Though there may well be the potential for World Cup nations to lose millions, or even billions, of dollars from worker distraction, there’s still a chance that employers could keep these figures to a minimum by adapting their employees’ schedules.