Tuesday, 13 Apr 2021

Interruptions stress the body but may calm the mind

A Swiss study finds that being interrupted while we work produces a paradoxical effect.

When you work in an office, you have to remain productive despite continual interruptions. After a while, responding to questions, texts, calls, and emails becomes less annoying as you develop the habit of calmly picking up where you left off.

However, new research from Switzerland finds that this calm is only superficial.

Continual interruptions at work lead to an unconscious increase in the stress hormone cortisol.

The study finds that although we may think continual interruptions do not bother us, they affect us on a physiological level.

The study appears in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Reasons for the study

A recent study by Stiftung Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, Job Stress Index 2020, reveals that almost a third of Swiss office workers experience workplace stress.

Concerned about the health effects of chronic stress — which may include exhaustion alongside other adverse outcomes — a multidisciplinary team from the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich embarked on a mission to find ways to detect and remediate workplace stress.

The team hopes to develop a machine learning-based tool that can detect stressors before they become a chronic problem.

“Our first step was to find out how to measure the effects of social pressure and interruptions — two of the most common causes of stress in the workplace,” says psychologist Jasmine Kerr.

The other team members are mathematician Mara Nägelin and computer scientist Raphael Weibel. All three are doctoral candidates at ETH Zurich.

Weibel comments:

“Most research into workplace interruptions carried out to date focused only on their effect on performance and productivity. Our study shows for the first time that they also affect the level of cortisol a person releases. In other words, they actually influence a person’s biological stress response.”

A day at the office

Kerr, Nägelin, and Weibel recruited 90 individuals — 44 females and 46 males between 18–40 years of age — willing to participate in experiments lasting just under 2 hours. The research team paid each participant 75 Swiss francs for taking part.

Setting the stage for these tests, the researchers converted the ETH Zurich Decision Science Laboratory into three simulated office spaces, each with multiple workstation rows. Every workstation had a computer, monitor, chair, and a kit with which the “worker” could collect saliva samples for the researchers. The samples were analyzed to assess individuals’ levels of cortisol.

In each session, 10 individuals were placed in one of the offices at a fictional insurance company, with the three groups exposed to three different levels of stress.

All participants took part in typical office tasks, including typing up handwritten documents and arranging client appointments. During the sessions, they were questioned six different times regarding their mood. Portable devices measured their heartbeats as the researchers tracked cortisol levels in their saliva samples.

Stress arrives

During the experiment, actors portraying company HR personnel were introduced to each office group.

For the first group, the control group, the HR personnel presented a sales pitch dialog.

The two other groups were exposed to stress. They were informed that the HR personnel were seeking candidates for promotion.

The workers in the first of these groups continued to go about their work uninterrupted, except to provide saliva samples. The second group was interrupted by chat messages from superiors with urgent requests for information. Both of the stress groups reported that their sessions were challenging.

According to Nägelin, “participants in the second stress group released almost twice the level of cortisol as those in the first stress group.”

Surprisingly, individuals in the second group did not feel particularly stressed, even though their increased cortisol levels told a different story.

In fact, individuals from the continually interrupted group reported feeling less stressed and being in better spirits than the first, uninterrupted stress group.

The researchers hypothesize, according to the study, that “psychological stress response seemed to be blunted by work interruptions.”

Therefore, the study paradoxically suggests that while interruptions negatively affect us physiologically, they may actually help psychologically by providing brief respites from workload stress.

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