'Hey, do you have a second?' The upside of workplace interruptions

August 8, 2021

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'Hey, do you have a second?' The upside of workplace interruptions

If you work in an office environment, it’s a common occurrence: You’re right in the middle of a project and a co-worker stops by to ask for help with a task or to share a photo of their new puppy.

When this happens, people generally sigh at being distracted and pretend that the puppy is the nicest they’ve ever seen. However, a new study finds that these interruptions are beneficial to a sense of belonging and can counterbalance negatives such as lost productivity.  

According to the study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, while there were downsides to interruptions at work, like raising levels of stress and lowering people’s energy, there was also an upside: Employees felt more like they “belonged” and that eventually led to higher job satisfaction.

What the researchers say: “If the past year of social distancing and isolation has shown us anything, it is that humans are social beings who have an inherent need for interacting with others,” says the study’s lead author.

In the study, the team surveyed 111 full-time employees twice a day for three weeks. They asked participants about their experience at work (since the beginning of the day for lunchtime surveys and since lunch for the end of workday surveys), including work interruptions, how mentally drained they felt, their sense of belonging and overall job satisfaction. The researchers found that while work interruptions can take a toll on interrupted employees' mental resources, thereby reducing job satisfaction, social interaction with an interrupter can also help boost employees' level of belonging, which was associated with increased job satisfaction.

What previous research has not considered, the lead author said, is that apart from their task-based aspect, work interruptions by others also involve a social component — the social interaction with the interrupter. “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.”

“We find that interruptions can actually benefit individuals from an interpersonal perspective — people feel like they belong when others come and talk to them or ask them questions, even while being distracted from their tasks,” the researchers commented.

What was surprising to the researchers was that the sense of belongingness mitigated the negative effect of interruptions on job satisfaction. Thus, interruptions at work may have gotten a bad rap due to a failure to consider their human element.

Since management historically has focused on ways to eliminate work interruptions, the study suggests this may have been misguided.

So, what? This research ties in neatly with earlier studies as to why people come to work—and stay in a particular workplace. These studies found that the main motivators for workplace engagement and employee retention were:

  • To relate—to have a sense of belonging to a tribe and thereby to feel relational support.
  • To acquire—money, yes, but much more importantly, status. This includes feeling valued.
  • To learn—the brain is a learning machine and needs to be challenged with new tasks and new ideas. When we stop learning, our system begins to die.
  • To play—to have fun and to find satisfaction. Essentially to stimulate the brain’s reward system (the dopamine/oxytocin pathways).
  • To defend—initially a lifestyle outside of work, but with the development of supportive relationships, the work tribe.

Read more on workplace tribes.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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