Rule out workplace distractions once and for all

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A three-second interruption is enough to cause an employee to make a mistake, according to new research conducted by Michigan State University.

In the study, 300 people were asked to perform a series of tasks on a computer, for example identifying whether a specific letter was closer to A or Z in the alphabet. On occasion, participants were interrupted and told to type two letters, which generally took 2.8 seconds. When they subsequently returned to the task, their error rate doubled.

The study is one of the first to examine the effect of brief interruptions on difficult tasks and appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Lead researcher, Erik Altmann, told MSU Today that he was surprised by the finding, although he did have an explanation. “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,” he said.

The repercussions for the modern workplace, given the prevalence of mobile phones, emails, work colleagues (and social media) all vying for our attention, is obvious. However, Altmann drew attention to the even more serious implications for pressure-filled jobs such as airplane mechanics or surgeons.

“What this means is that our health and safety is, on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted,” Altman said.

New Zealand and Australian researchers are currently conducting a study that may modify the results of this one. Deak Helton, of University of Canterbury, is collaborating with Mark Wiggins, of Macquarie University (Sydney) to investigate whether guided distractions can improve the performance of workers in these situations.

Guided distractions are a ‘secondary task’, Helton told Fairfax. “Instead of letting the person do whatever they pick, we will look at getting workers to perform a secondary task that is not too distracting or hard to snap out of. This could provide them with something to fill time that is minimally intrusive or easy to disengage from,” he said.

Key HR Takeaways:

  • The more your staff are interrupted during their important work, the more likely they are to commit errors according to the Michigan State University study.
     
  • Altmann suggested reducing the potential for interruptions in an environment. “So before you enter this critical phase: All cell phones are off at the very least,” he advised.

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