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Focus and Flourishing at Work

Why distraction at work is more costly than absenteeism.

The current research update from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard reports that work distraction is often more costly to employers than sick days, and discusses how individual job-crafting and other approaches can enhance workplace engagement.

Work and Human Flourishing

A typical full-time worker will have spent about 90,000 hours actively working by the time he or she retires. How we spend that extraordinary investment of time greatly affects our flourishing. Work affects flourishing not only because work provides the goods and services that we need to live full lives, but also because it can offer meaning, rich relationships, and opportunities to build character. Indeed, our prior literature review on pathways to flourishing identified work as one of the most important pathways to such complete well-being, and one that is both common across populations and also has important effects on numerous domains of well-being, including happiness, health, meaning, character, relationships, and financial stability.

However, work can often be disagreeable; we may sometimes find that our jobs are too all-consuming, or sources of interpersonal strife, or just dull. When work is engaging it may have greater potential to contribute to an individual’s flourishing than when we are unengaged, unhappy at work, or distracted. At the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, we have recently been studying both distraction and engagement at work. These are important issues — they are important to individuals and important to employers and companies as well. Fortunately, there are also evidence-based approaches to try to address some of these issues of distraction and engagement.

The Cost of Distraction

Most people want to be engaged at work. The time passes more quickly, and the activities seem more fun. But engaged and satisfied employees are also good for business: they are more productive, less likely to leave the company, and less likely to waste time on the job. Engagement can have a major impact on costs, revenues, and profit.

In one of our recent studies with our collaborators at the SHINE program at Harvard, we examined how monetary loss due to days of illness compared to that due to distraction at work. The primary sample in the analysis involved a survey of 3,258 employees at a major US manufacturing company with annual revenue of $6 billion. In the survey, we assessed the number of sick days and, by matching with salary data, we estimated the total monetary loss due to health-related absence from work. We also assessed the percentage of time each day employees were distracted and the corresponding lost productivity. The results were striking.

While there was an estimated loss of $16 million per year due to sick days, the loss due to distraction was dramatically higher and estimated to be $307 million. Results were also similar in another survey (this time of Polish factory workers) in which the cost of productivity loss due to distraction was estimated to be nearly five times higher than that due to absenteeism.

Many companies devote considerable effort, often in the form of elaborate wellness programs, to reduce employee sick days. Such efforts contribute some good, but the analyses comparing sick days and distraction suggest that a more important approach might be to address issues not just of physical wellness, but of more holistic well-being, including by enhancing a sense of engagement at work. Our analyses suggest that if this could be improved, the effects on productivity and revenues could be very substantial indeed.

But can we improve work engagement? This is yet another question that we have been addressing at the Human Flourishing Program.

Job-Crafting and Work Engagement

One approach to improving work-engagement is what is sometimes called “job-crafting.” Job-crafting involves an employee reflecting upon his or her work environment and then taking actions at work to try to (i) structure one’s tasks so that they can be done more effectively, or so that tedious tasks are no longer necessary, or so that more challenging or interesting tasks are available; (ii) improve one’s social relationships and interactions at work; and (iii) find meaning and purpose in the work being done, often by connecting it to the mission or vision of the entire organization itself.

Such job-crafting is a bottom-up approach. It can be carried out by anyone without necessarily requiring a change in the job position, or even permission from management; one simply tries to use the freedom that one does in fact have at work to make that work experience better. Executives can engage in job crafting, but so can janitors, as Barry Schwartz illustrates in his book, Practical Wisdom. Schwartz describes a group of hospital custodians who had “crafted their jobs with the central purpose of the hospital in mind … They saw themselves as playing an important role in an institution whose aim was … the care and welfare of patients.” They not only took pride in their contribution to that work but allowed it to shape their routines, as when “Charlayne…refrained from vacuuming the visitors’ lounge while some family members … happened to be napping.” This is just one example of what might be achieved through such job-crafting practices.

We’ve recently carried out and published a meta-analysis on job-crafting that combines the results and evidence from the most rigorous studies on the topic. While there have been a number of prior studies (and even prior meta-analyses) on job-crafting, the vast majority of these use cross-sectional data where all the variables are assessed at the same time, making it difficult to discern causal relationships. Does job-crafting increase work engagement? Or are those with higher levels of work engagement more likely to carry out job-crafting? With cross-sectional data, we cannot tell. Our study and meta-analysis restricted attention to only longitudinal studies that collected data at two or more time-points so that we could look at how job-crafting earlier in time might affect work engagement later in time. Even when restricting to these more rigorous studies, we found evidence for an important effect of job-crafting on improving work engagement. Thinking about meaning, and one’s relationships, and one’s tasks in the workplace context appears to be an effective way to improve work engagement.

Such job crafting can of course be done informally simply by reflecting on the nature of one’s work and work relationships. However, Wrzesniewski and Dutton, the researchers who provided the original theoretical framework for job crafting, have also developed a workbook to assist in the process. And we’ve also provided a tool for job-crafting in our own flourishing app that we described in an earlier research posting. Such tools could be promoted in workplace settings to encourage job crafting, which would not only enhance work engagement (and thereby reduce revenue-draining distraction) but would also potentially offer employees improved relationships and a deeper sense of meaning and mission in life.

Life of Pix/Adobe Spark
Source: Life of Pix/Adobe Spark

Improving Well-Being in the Workplace

Greater purpose and better relationships are of course not only a means to greater job engagement (and job satisfaction and productivity), but they are ends sought for their own sake. Managers paying attention to these matters as important ends for employees would constitute an important shift towards holistic care for employee well-being.

Job-crafting itself is a bottom-up approach. But of course, work environments matter too. Managers are able to not only encourage and provide opportunities for such job-crafting practices, but can also try to offer employees more discretion about the structure of their work, so as to provide broader scope for job crafting and a greater sense of autonomy, mastery, and control. Managers can also host events that empower camaraderie and relationships among employees, and can emphasize the organization’s mission and the goods it seeks to contribute to society.

Bottom-up and top-down approaches to promoting employee engagement thus need not be in conflict; they can be complementary. By uniting them, managers and employees can help ensure that work enhances the dignity of each person by allowing all workers to express their uniqueness in a way that contributes to the common good. If managers paired job crafting with genuine concern for their employees, they could enhance workplace well-being, increase productivity, reduce distraction, and lead the way to greater flourishing for all.

—Tyler J. VanderWeele, Director, Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University


Frederick, D.E. and VanderWeele, T.J. (2020). Longitudinal meta-analysis of job crafting shows positive association with work engagement. Cogent Psychology, 7:1,1746733.

Bialowolski, P., McNeely, E., VanderWeele, T.J., and Weziak-Bialowolska, D. (2020). Ill health and distraction at work: costs and drivers for productivity loss. PLoS One, 15(3):e0230562.

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