Minimising the impact of disruptions in the workplace

Distractions such as telephone calls, emails, online notifications and colleagues stopping by for a chat, or even the time it takes to try to remove such distractions, are part and parcel of the modern workplace. We tend to take it for granted that long periods of uninterrupted work are few and far between.

Recent research has shown that this can have quite a damaging effect on productivity and work safety. A study conducted by Michigan State University found that interruptions as short as 3 seconds are enough to double the chance that an employee will make a mistake.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that when participants were interrupted for just under 3 seconds while performing a sequence based task on the computer, their error rate on the primary task doubled from when this was performed in isolation.

300 participants performed tasks in a sequence such as identifying whether a target letter was closer to A or Z. Sometimes interruptions were introduced, whereby participants were asked to type two letters, a task which took 2.8 seconds. When interrupted they were twice as likely to make mistakes on the sequencing task when they returned to it. On slightly longer distractions (4.5 seconds), the error rate tripled.

Erik Altmann, the lead researcher expressed surprise that such short interruptions had such a damaging effect. He did not think that the time taken to do the secondary task was the problem, as it was only as long or slightly longer than the time taken to perform one step in the sequencing task. Instead, he thought the great increase in the error rate was because “..the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought.”

These outcomes have serious implications for workers’ productivity and more importantly, for health and safety, particularly in industries such as medicine and aviation where mistakes can be fatal.

A key message from the research was to minimise distractions in the workplace, particularly during important tasks. “So before you enter this critical phase: All cell phones off at the very least,” Altmann says.

While this is wise advice, it is not always possible to remove distractions or to give employees the opportunity to work on only one task at once. In many roles, juggling competing demands and dealing with several important tasks simultaneously is key to the role.

RightPeople can help. We have developed the Multi-Tasks Test, a dual-task  test of higher-level problem solving ability that involves solving two problems simultaneously. Strong performance on this task is a good indicator of a candidate’s ability to divide their attention well between two tasks. This test can be used to identify those individuals who will best be able to cope with distractions and competing demands. It can also be used for staff development and promotion decisions.

Contact us to find out more about how we can help you minimise the impact of distractions on productivity and health/safety in your organisation.