November 26, 2020

Getting Interrupted at the Workplace Is Probably Stressing You Out

Although it feels like it was a lifetime ago, I’m going to ask you to recall back to The Before TimeTM when everyone still worked in offices. Picture it: you’re back at your desk, deep into a project, and finding your groove. Your fingers are tapping away, and the work is getting done before your eyes. And then — cue disturbing *BZZZZZZZT* sound here — a wild co-worker appears, asking you the same dumbass question they asked you three days ago. So long, work.

Work-from-home has mitigated some of this annoyance, of course. It’s much easier to ignore these people when they’re miles away, secluded in their own home with only a chat window to reach you through.

According to ETH Zurich — a public research university in Zürich, Switzerland — interruptions at work like the one above aren’t just annoying, they actually elicit a physical stress response. The idea being that repeated stress responses lead to very unhappy employees which leads to … well, I don’t have to explain that part to you guys.

According to the Job Stress Index 2020 compiled by Stiftung Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, a Swiss health foundation, almost one-​third of the Swiss workforce experience work-​related stress. Should this stress become chronic, it can lead to states of exhaustion that have a negative impact on public health and carry a significant economic cost.

In the actual experiment, researchers did not deploy a gang of wild interns asking repetitive questions but rather “HR department” decoys:

For their experiment, the researchers divided the participants into three groups and exposed each group to a different level of stress. All groups were given the same workload. In the middle of the experiment, all participants were visited by two actors masquerading as representatives of the insurance company’s HR department. For participants in the control group, the actors staged a sales pitch dialogue, while in the two stress groups they pretended to be looking for the most suitable candidates for a promotion.

The difference between the two stress groups was that participants in the first group stopped work only to have samples of their saliva taken. But the participants in the second stress group had to contend with additional interruptions in the form of chat messages from their superiors urgently requesting information.

Upon evaluation, the data indicated that asking participants to compete for a fictional promotion was enough to raise their heart rate and trigger the release of cortisol. “But participants in the second stress group released almost twice the level of cortisol as those in the first stress group,” [mathematician Mara] Nägelin says. [computer scientist Raphael] Weibel adds: “Most research into workplace interruptions carried out to date focused only on their effect on performance and productivity. Our study shows for the first time that they also affect the level of cortisol a person releases, in other words they actually influence a person’s biological stress response.”

If you suffer from anxiety, you’re already more than aware how cortisol can affect our well-being. If you’re unfamiliar, think about the last time you were really scared, that’s the cortisol at work kicking in your inherent fight or flight response. Or imagine that fluttery feeling you get when you’re getting strapped into a roller coaster, kinda the same thing. Now imagine that same process kicking in every time a colleague interrupts your flow.

The researchers say they were surprised by “participants’ subjective responses in terms of how they perceived psychological stress” and that the group interrupted by chat messages “reported being less stressed and in a better mood than the participants in the first stress group, who didn’t have these interruptions.” Although the two groups “rated the situation as equally challenging, the second group found it less threatening.” In other words, the second group had to deal with the same issues as the first along with additional chat messages from superiors, and while they reported feeling less stressed, saliva samples taken from those participants showed twice the level of “stress hormone” as the first group.

Keep this in mind the next time you go invisible online for 10 minutes so you can take a nice, quiet, uninterrupted dump while working from home without feeling guilty about stepping away from work for a sec.

Workplace interruptions lead to physical stress [ZTH Zurich]

What Is Cortisol? [WebMD]

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