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The Surprising Benefits of Workplace Interruptions

Social interaction during work interruptions can benefit employee wellbeing.

Key points

  • Work interruptions can have both negative and positive effects on interrupted employees' wellbeing and job satisfaction.
  • The need to repeatedly switch attention between tasks during work interruptions can be exhausting and take a toll on employees' energy levels.
  • By providing an avenue for social interaction, work interruptions can foster a sense of belonging and connection with others.
  • The belongingness fostered by the social component of work interruptions helps enhance employees' wellbeing and job satisfaction.

In today’s dynamic work environments, it is almost impossible to work without being interrupted by others. As organizations gradually transition back to in-person work, employees may find a rise in interruptions by others in the workplace—indeed, colleagues might drop by unexpectedly to chat about their weekend or to ask for a work update, supervisors might check in on work, subordinates might come by to ask for help, or clients might inquire about their orders.

Until now, research has mainly focused on the negative effects of such workplace interruptions for interrupted employees in the form of lowered productivity, time pressure, and stress (for a detailed review of this research see: Puranik, Koopman, and Vough, 2020). Thus, it is not surprising that work interruptions are usually viewed negatively, and the general advice given to managers is to try to eliminate or reduce all work interruptions.

However, a pre-pandemic study by me and my colleagues (Dr. Joel Koopman from Texas A&M University and Dr. Heather Vough from George Mason University), which is set to appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology, shows that such work interruptions by others can also result in a potential benefit for interrupted employees—a greater sense of belongingness and connection with other people in the workplace.

The social component of work interruptions

If you observe the work interruptions described above, you will notice that apart from the disruption of ongoing tasks, these interruptions also involve a social component—the social interaction with the interrupting person. Prior research has largely ignored this social component of work interruptions, choosing instead to focus on interruptions’ negative task-related effects.

In our study, we adopted a more balanced approach to studying work interruptions and examined the impact of both the task-based implications and the social component of work interruptions. In line with prior research, we did find that the need to repeatedly switch attention between tasks during work interruptions was exhausting and took a toll on employees’ energy levels, resulting in lowered job satisfaction. However, we also found that the social component of work interruptions actually benefitted the wellbeing of interrupted employees.

Research in social psychology has established that humans are inherently social beings with a fundamental need for social interaction and connection (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Indeed, the last year of social distancing and isolation has only served to highlight how important social interaction and connection are for people’s psychological wellbeing. In our study, we found that by providing an avenue for social interaction with the interrupting person, work interruptions helped interrupted employees fulfill their need for belongingness and social connection, which, in turn, boosted their job satisfaction. Even more interesting was the finding that these beneficial effects of interruptions’ social component actually weakened some of the negative effects that interruptions’ task-based component had on interrupted employees’ job satisfaction.

Practical implications for managing work interruptions

Our findings point to the need to reassess how we view and manage work interruptions. Rather than considering interruptions to be uniformly negative events that must be eliminated, our results suggest that interruptions can have both negative and positive effects. Managers should thus focus on better management, rather than the complete elimination of work interruptions by focusing on enhancing the beneficial effects of interruptions’ social component and reducing the negative effects of interruptions' task-based component.

The results of our supplemental analysis showed that one way managers can do this is by providing employees more autonomy in when and how they work since higher work autonomy seemed to enhance the beneficial effects of interruptions’ social component in our study. A reason for this could be that in such cases, employees may have more freedom to reschedule the interrupted work later. As a result, they may be less distracted or preoccupied with the interruptions’ disruptive effect on their work tasks during the interruption and may be able to focus more on the interruptions’ social component and benefit from it.

Apart from enhancing the positive effects of interruptions’ social component, managers can also focus on reducing the negative effects of interruptions’ task-based component on employees’ energy levels. One way managers can do this is by reducing other unnecessary workplace demands (e.g., distracting background noises or malfunctioning equipment), which can be frustrating and take a toll on employees’ energy levels. By removing these other unnecessary demands on employees’ energy levels, managers can make sure employees have more energetic resources to handle interruptions’ disruptive effects. This can thus reduce the negative effect of work interruptions’ task-based component on interrupted employees’ job satisfaction.

In sum, better management, rather than complete elimination, is the key to effectively handling work interruptions.

References

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

Puranik, H., Koopman, J., & Vough, H. C. (2020). Pardon the interruption: An integrative review and future research agenda for research on work interruptions. Journal of Management, 46, 806-842. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0149206319887428

Puranik, H., Koopman, J., & Vough, H. C. (in press). Excuse me, do you have a minute? An exploration of the dark- and bright-side effects of daily work interruptions for employee well-being. Journal of Applied Psychology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000875

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