Pop-up, buzz, ding!, Chats:

how work interruptions affect employees well-being at work

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Scientific interpretation

It’s 10 am, you work on a major report and for some reason, today you rock it! Maybe you’ll even be able to finish it before lunch time. But suddenly, the phone rings and two emails pop up. Immediate attention required.

And yet again, you will fall behind with your tasks today. But you’re not alone. Work interruptions are common in workplaces, but what are their consequences for the well-being of employees? This is the question asked in the study by Keller et al. (2019) in which the mid- and long-term effects of frequent work interruptions are investigated using two longitudinal studies.

Conseillère experte

Anita KELLER, Assistant Professor, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Auteurs

Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke
Marie-Élise LABRECQUE, Research Professional, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY:

Work interruptions

These are circumstances or events when work has to be set aside to handle other situations, such as responding to emails or phone calls, dealing with equipment malfunctions, or interacting with colleagues. Usually, these work interruptions are involuntary and are not controllable by the employee. It means that looking at Facebook or Instagram does not represent a work interruption in the sense of this study.

 

Well-being

In the present study, well-being is measured with two variables:

  • Psychosomatic complaints
    The physical experience of stress experiences such as headaches, back pain, or sleep problems.
  • Job satisfaction
    A positive feeling towards work and the work situation. Job satisfaction is closely related to commitment, turnover, absenteeism, and job performance.

 

Complete reference

Keller, A. C., Meier, L. L., Elfering, A., & Semmer, N. K. (2019). Please wait until I am done! Longitudinal effects of work interruptions on employee well-being. Work & Stress, 1-20.

https://doi.org/10.1080/02678373.2019.1579266

Method

Study 1
Country: Switzerland
Number of participants: 415
Mean age: 20.6 years
Mean working hours: 39.6 to 40.2
Sex: 65% were female

Recruitment of participants:
Participants from a panel study following young adults from compulsory education to the labor market were selected. Participants had to be fully employed in 2005 to participate in the study (five years after compulsory schooling).

Method used: Five-year longitudinal study with 4 waves (2005, 2006, 2007, 2010).

 

Study 2
Country: Switzerland
Number of participants: 663
Mean age: 32.4 years
Mean working hours: 38.5 to 39
Sex: 51% were female

Recruitment of participants:
The participant sample consisted of employees from different organizations, with a broad spectrum of occupations.

Method used: Eight months longitudinal study with five waves over eight months (one every two months).

WHAT ARE THE FINDINGS OF THE STUDY?

Overall, the study showed that higher amounts of interruptions are associated with lower job satisfaction levels and more psychosomatic complaints and have a negative effect over time by further reducing employee well-being.

An increase in work interruptions has an effect on employee well-being by decreasing job satisfaction and increasing psychosomatic complaints.

  • The decrease in well-being can be explained in different ways. For example, an increase in work interruptions requires employees to develop new coping strategies, while those already acquired become ineffective over time.
  • The more the number of work interruptions increases, the more complex dealing with them becomes and the consequences are felt more severely such as increased time pressure, accumulation of work, passed deadlines. An accumulation of work interruptions also gives employees the impression of a loss of control over their schedule, which affects their ability to adapt.

It is even more harmful to employees to be exposed to an increasing number of interruptions over time.

  • This can be explained by the fact that regular interruptions of work can become foreseeable and employees can learn to manage some of them by for example scheduling time for complex tasks early in the morning when only few colleagues are around.
  • When interruptions further increase and become unpredictable it becomes even more difficult to handle the interruptions and problems manifest themselves.

The amount of work interruptions tends to increase over time (especially among younger workers).

  • This can be explained through the increase in responsibilities and expertise acquired over time; job newcomers often have fewer responsibilities and roles they fill in the company. As the career progresses, employees take on more duties and responsibilities, are part of different projects, and have acquired knowledge that may be useful to others.

 

Avenues of action for employer

Keep in mind that open workspaces are conducive to work interruptions.

  • Allow for closed spaces and separate common work areas for video conferencing, meetings or phone calls, for example. Isolated spaces can also be made available to employees who wish to chat without disturbing their colleagues.
  • Give employees the opportunity to control their work interruptions. For example, silent areas can be made available when workers need to focus on their tasks.

Establish certain rules between colleagues.

For example:

  • Employees may choose to answer e-mails and phone calls only during certain times during the day.
  • Be asked that during certain periods of the day, e-mails and phone calls are ignored.
  • Visiting colleagues in their offices Is only allowed if their office door is open.

 

Do not overlook the responsiveness of employees and keep in mind that emails sent have recipients.

  • If people feel they need to respond immediately to emails, they won’t shut them off.

 

The opportunity to take telecommuting days may also be offered for employees.

  • Telecommuting days can help focus on some tasks that require a higher level of concentration.

 

Feedback from our expert

With this study, we extended knowledge on the effects of work interruptions by going beyond the established findings of negative effects on performance by showcasing harmful effects on well-being as well. Interruptions are not only on the rise because of technological changes and office design, but also due to the way we assign tasks and roles to different employees. For example, being involved in multiple projects with different coworkers creates more fragmented work and comes with more interruptions. Currently, we are working on investigating what strategies employees use to manage interruptions and which of these strategies are actually effective in terms of performance and well-being.

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Keller, A., Fouquet, E., Labrecque, M.-E. (2019). Pop-up, buzz, ding!, chats: how work interruptions affect employees well-being at work. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Keller, A. C., Meier, L. L., Elfering, A., & Semmer, N. K. (2019). Please wait until I am done! Longitudinal effects of work interruptions on employee well-being. Work & Stress, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678373.2019.1579266

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