Interruptions both in the workplace or while working at home are seemingly unavoidable. Your boss comes to your desk and asks how your weekend was when you are in the middle of working on a project for him, or simply you are just checking your texts and email while working. These all can interfere with your goals and your task at hand, but it does not end there! Cars are making lots of noise outside your office, and you have already been working for hours. On top of all that, you have also been simultaneously trying to coordinate your co-workers surprise birthday party that is tomorrow. All this is can be so overwhelming, no wonder the you’re feeling stressed. You deserve a break, right? Of course you do!
Interruptions can have a big impact on your stress levels. It may not seem like it at first, each person that interrupts you while working, those noisy cars, the much-needed breaks, and the last-minute change of the task can be challenging. Further, over time, the additive effects of these interruptions can cause more and more stress to build. When all that stress consistently builds or accumulates, your happiness and overall well-being will be impacted.
Additionally, frequent interruptions will likely cause you to be more prone to errors and cause an overall decrease in your task performance. These negative effects are more likely when the tasks are difficult or cognitively challenging. Further, the negative effects of interruptions often have large impacts near task completion. Specifically, being interrupted when you’re almost done with a task is thought to be more draining (as it’s often more effortful to pause when you’re almost done with a task compared to if you had just started a task) and cause negative performance on future tasks.
Thankfully, not all hope is lost. Some types of interruptions – specifically in the form of short breaks - can be beneficial and actually increase your future performance and decrease stress. Very short breaks, even under a minute (like looking at nature), can be beneficial and restore attention. In addition, taking breaks in between cognitively demanding tasks can improve productivity across the day.
It can also be beneficial to reduce interruptions that you can control. For instance, multitasking is considered an interruption that is self-caused, the other secondary tasks or activities being distraction from the main task or goal you have. Additionally, pay attention to sources of interruptions may help you control them. For instance, if you keep receiving notifications on your cell phone, put your phone out of sight. Taking steps to ensure that various types of interruptions are minimized can help.
It’s clear that being interrupted and distracted at work is inevitable. However, we must acknowledge the immediate and long-term consequences of interruptions, such as higher stress levels, poorer well-being and lower task performance, and work to mitigate interruptions. Even though breaks are considered a type of interruption to your work, using breaks in a way that can combat the immediate and cumulative consequences of interruptions is beneficial. Finally, be sure to take steps to reduce self-caused interruptions (limit that multitasking!) to maintain focus on the task and goal.
References and Further Reading:
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Ang, S., & Malhotra, R. (2017). Expressive social support buffers the impact of care-related work interruptions on caregivers' depressive symptoms. Aging & Mental Health, 22(6), 755-763. doi:10.1080/13607863.2017.1317329
Baethge, A., Rigotti, T., & Roe, R. A. (2015). Just more of the same, or different? an integrative theoretical framework for the study of cumulative interruptions at work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 24(2), 308-323. doi:10.1080/1359432X.2014.897943
Claessens, B. J. C., van Eerde, W., Rutte, C. G., & Roe, R. A. (2010). Things to do today...: A daily diary study on task completion at work. Applied Psychology an International Review, 59(2), 273-295. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2009.00390.x
Cohen, J., LaRue, C., & Cohen, H. H. (2017). Attention interrupted: Cognitive distraction & workplace safety. Professional Safety, 62(11), 28-34.
Coker, B. L. S. (2011). Freedom to surf: The positive effects of workplace internet leisure browsing. New Technology, Work and Employment, 26(3), 238-247. doi:10.1111/j.1468-005X.2011.00272
Conard, M., Barbour, M., & Marsh, R. (2017). College Student Work Habits, Interruptions, and Stress. i-Manager's Journal on Educational Psychology, 10(4), 1.
Fletcher, K. A., Potter, S. M., & Telford, B. N. (2018). Stress outcomes of four types of perceived interruptions. Human Factors: The Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 60(2), 222-235. doi:10.1177/0018720817738845
Foroughi, C. K., Werner, N. E., Nelson, E. T., & Boehm-Davis, D. A. (2014). Do interruptions affect quality of work? Human Factors: The Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 56(7), 1262-1271. doi:10.1177/0018720814531786
Galluch, P. S., Grover, V., & Thatcher, J. B. (2015). Interrupting the workplace: Examining stressors in an information technology context. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 16(1), 1.
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