Imagine you’re finishing up an important project, and a coworker sticks his head in your office door and blurts, “Hey, got a minute?” He wants to show you a photograph of his daughter or ask for a favor. You feel your stress juices rise, the blood in your face, your heart thump against your rib cage. Most people would consider such a distraction to be an unwanted intrusion. Unexpected work interruptions, bringing you to a temporary halt, are common in today’s workplace. When we think about these intrusions, we focus on the negative effects of lost time on our well-being and job productivity. But a new study shows that work interruptions during a focused project—while raising stress levels—can also have positive social advantages that benefit mental health and productivity.
The three-week study of 111 participants revealed that work intrusions also involve a social aspect between the interrupter and the one being interrupted that can have advantages of simultaneously fulfilling the need for belongingness, which mediates the negative and positive effects of work intrusions on job satisfaction. The researchers conclude that, “Overall, by extending our focus onto the social component of work intrusions, and modeling the mechanisms that transmit the dark-and the bright-side effects of work intrusions onto job satisfaction simultaneously, we provide a balanced view of this workplace phenomenon.” In other words, work interruptions can create interpersonal feelings of belongingness that offset the negative feelings of lost productivity. As social beings, people feel like they belong when someone drops by to speak with them or ask questions—which overrides the fact that they’re distracted from their task.
“What previous research has not considered is that apart from their task-based aspect, work interruptions by others also involve a social component—the social interaction with the interrupter,” said Dr. Harshad Puranik, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Our study revealed that by providing this avenue for social interaction with one’s colleagues, work interruptions led to a greater sense of belonging. This sense of belonging, in turn, led to higher job satisfaction.”
This study adds to a growing body of research which shows that pausing from our nose-to-the-grindstone toil has other advantages as well. Research from scientists at North Carolina State University showed the value of taking “Microbreaks” throughout the workday. These short breaks—of five minutes or less—are effective energy management strategies and can be as simple as stretching, walking up and down stairs, gazing out a window at nature, snacking, or having a five minute mindful meditation. Other studies show that we remember things longer if we take breaks during learning, referred to as the spacing effect. Scientists speculate that this allows the neuronal connections to strengthen with each learning event, such that knowledge is stored for a longer time. A resting brain—whether derived from intention or intrusion—improves learning and helps retain information for a longer span of time.
The new science of taking time out runs against the grain in many corporate cultures where the adage of “Rise And Grind” is the rule. It perpetuates the dinosaur belief that changing tires at 80 miles an hour yields greater praise, promotions and bang for the buck. But science no longer backs the belief that running yourself into the ground is good business for either employee or employer. Chronic work pressure creates roadblocks to relaxation and productivity. It disconnects workers from themselves and their surroundings and keeps stress needles elevated and ultimately can lead to job burnout.
Is it possible that work intrusions have gotten a bum rap? Perhaps as management historically focused on ways to eliminate work intrusions to promote productivity, it failed to consider the positive human elements. The new science of work intrusions suggests that companies, instead of eliminating work intrusions, find alternatives such as allowing employees the autonomy to choose when and where they work and how they schedule their work. Instead of eliminating work interruptions, the new science suggests businesses build more humane work cultures in which breaks between tasks boosts job engagement, performance and the company’s bottom line.
So, if you catch yourself foregoing a break when you need it, don’t wait for a coworker to interrupt you with, “Hey, got a minute?” Interrupt yourself with a five-minute break, instead of continuing to plow through the work pile, and notice the difference in your concentration, energy level and productivity.
A Final Word
Watch your mind and notice where it goes from moment to moment for the next 24 hours. Note the difference between when take a Microbreak and when you require yourself to plow through the work pile. As you continue this practice, tension will subside, you’ll feel more relaxed and self-satisfaction and mindful productivity will soar.