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The impact of interruptions at work

07.28.2014
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Interruptions seem a central part of modern working life.  Whether it’s open plan offices or the influx of digital tools into the workplace, a distraction never seems far away.  Indeed, studies have suggested that the average office worker is interrupted six times every hour.

A recent study from George Mason University has set out to explore just how these interruptions impact the quality of our work.  The researchers designed a study to assess the output we can generate under varying degrees of hubub and interruption.

It emerged that significantly lower quality work was produced by the participants subjected to frequent interruptions.  Interestingly, interruptions during the outline and planning phases resulted in lower quality, whereas interruptions during the actual production phase itself resulted in lower quantity of work.

“Interruption can cause a noticeable decrement in the quality of work, so it’s important to take steps to reduce the number of external interruptions we encounter daily,” the researchers said. “For example, turn off your cell phone and disable notifications such as e-mail while trying to complete an important task.”

Assuming that the kind of workplaces that harvest so many interruptions are unlikely to go away, help may be at hand from a recent study looking at how best to respond to them.  The paper suggests that our personal thinking styles and values play a central role in how we deal with these interruptions, and indeed how we feel about our work encroaching on our leisure time.

The paper provides encouraging suggestions around the benefits of training in mitigating the impact of them, with a knock on effect on the quality of our leisure time.

The key to good mental wellbeing was how the interruptions were perceived.  If for instance they were seen as positive and constructive, by for instance, providing a break from their work, then those individuals were found to spend less of their leisure time worrying about work issues.

The researchers go on to highlight a number of strategies that can be deployed to both help employees respond to interruptions at work, and to better recover when not at work.

  • Organisations could provide training in time and task management, including assertiveness training with regard to managing interruptions.
  • Organisations can also play a role in reducing work intensification and the spillover of work tasks and communication into leisure time.
  • Organisations can also ensure that employees have mandatory periods of unavailability, so for instance, email could be limited to official work hours.
  • Individuals can also more accurately value the role of leisure and relaxation to their wellbeing by proactively organising enjoyable activities for their leisure time.

So all in all, nothing truly revolutionary here, but it does provide a further reminder on the importance of taking time to recharge our batteries, and to approach the vagaries of modern working life with a positive outlook.

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