Illegitimate interruptions reduce productivity in the workplace

University of Queensland

A team of researchers from The University of Queensland has found employees experience more stress at work when interrupted with requests for unnecessary or unreasonable tasks.

Associate Professor Stacey Parker from UQ’s School of Psychology led the study that investigated how interruptions during work can have an impact on employees’ stress and performance.

“We found that the type of interruption plays an important role in how people react,” Dr Parker said.

“If a person is interrupted with a request to complete a task they perceive as illegitimate, which is pointless or outside their responsibilities, we found performance is compromised.”

“People believe these interruptions hinder progress on their usual work which can lead to increased anxiety and cognitive difficulties.”

Phase 1 of the study involved 144 participants, who were asked to identify a time they were interrupted during work with both a legitimate and illegitimate task and respond to a series of questions assessing their stress and cognitive reactions to each.

Phase 2 was a simulation, where 231 participants played the role of a Human Resources Manager and were asked to respond to 8 emails in 20 minutes.

“During this simulation, the participants were then interrupted with an urgent task from the CEO which was either inside or outside the scope of their role,” Dr Parker said.

“Afterwards we assessed their performance on the work simulation, and they were asked to report on their levels of stress and perceived ability to complete the tasks.”

Dr Parker said the results from the study provided valuable insight into how to improve productivity in the workplace.

“It’s important for organisations to understand the types of interruptions their employees are dealing with, ­and consider removing or limiting unnecessary or unreasonable tasks that can hinder performance.

“From an employee perspective, it’s important to understand how their requests may impact on their coworkers.

“Before you interrupt a colleague with a task, stop and think about how they may perceive it and how their productivity will be affected.

“If it might be perceived as pointless or outside their role, perhaps find another way for it to be completed.”

The research is published in European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.

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Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences

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