Interruptions stress the body but it may calm the mind

Interruptions stress the body but it may calm the mind
1185904913 Image credit: Tara Moore/Getty Images

A Swiss study shows that a paradoxical effect is created by being interrupted as we work.

Interruption stress
1185904913 Image credit: Tara Moore/Getty Images

When you work in an office, amid constant interruptions, you have to stay active. After a while, when you grow the habit of calmly picking up where you left off, responding to questions, texts, calls, and emails becomes less irritating.

Nevertheless, Switzerland ‘s latest research finds that this calm is just superficial.

Continuous interruptions at work lead to an unconscious spike in cortisol , the stress hormone.

The research finds that while we may think we are not bothered by constant interruptions, they affect us on a physiological level.

The research appears in Psychoneuroendocrinology, a journal.

Reasons for the study

A Job Stress Index 2020, a recent report by Stiftung Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, shows that almost a third of Swiss office employees face stress in the workplace.

A multidisciplinary team from the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich has embarked on a mission to find ways to identify and remedy occupational stress, concerned about the health consequences of chronic stress, which could include fatigue alongside other adverse results.

The team hopes to create a tool based on machine learning that can predict stressors before they become a chronic issue.

“Our first step was to figure out how the impact of peer pressure and interruptions can be assessed, two of the most prevalent causes of occupational stress,” says psychologist Jasmine Kerr.

Mathematician Mara Nägelin and computer scientist Raphael Weibel are the other team members. All three are candidates for doctoral studies 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 people willing to engage in experiments lasting just under 2 hours, 44 females and 46 males between 18 and 40 years of age. Each participant was paid 75 Swiss francs by the research team to take part.

The researchers transformed the ETH Zurich Decision Science Laboratory into three virtual office spaces, each with multiple workstation rows, setting the stage for these experiments. For the researchers, each workstation had a screen, monitor, chair, and a kit with which the “worker” could collect saliva samples. To measure individuals’ levels of cortisol, the samples were analyzed.

In each session, 10 participants were put at a fictitious insurance firm in one of the offices, with the three groups subject to three different levels of stress.

In typical office activities, all participants took part, including typing handwritten papers and scheduling client appointments. They were asked six separate times during the sessions concerning their mood. Portable devices monitored their heartbeats as cortisol levels were tracked in their saliva samples by the researchers.

Stress arrives

During the experiment, each office group was introduced to actors representing company HR personnel.

A sales pitch dialog was presented by the HR staff for the first group, the control group.

Stress was exposed to the two other categories. They were told that the HR workers were seeking promotion candidates.

The workers continued to do their work uninterruptedly in the first of these groups, except to provide samples of saliva. Chat messages from superiors with urgent demands for information disrupted the second group. The stress groups both indicated that their sessions were difficult.

“Participants in the second stress group released about twice the amount of cortisol as those in the first stress group,” according to Nägelin.

Surprisingly , people did not feel especially depressed in the second group, even if their elevated levels of cortisol told a different tale.

In fact , people from the consistently disrupted group reported feeling less depressed than the first, uninterrupted stress group and being in better spirits.

“According to the report , the researchers hypothesize that” psychological stress response seemed to be blunted by job interruptions.

Paradoxically, therefore, the study indicates that while interruptions have a negative physiological effect on us, they can actually benefit psychologically by offering brief breaks from workload tension.