Frequent Workplace Interruptions Are Annoying — But May Also Help You Feel That You Belong

By Emma Young

Workplace disturbances during the Covid-19 pandemic aren’t quite what they used to be. Now you’re more likely to be interrupted by a cat jumping on your keyboard or a partner trying to make a cup of tea while you’re in a meeting — but if you can cast your mind back to what it was like to work in an office, perhaps you can recall how annoying it was to be disturbed by colleagues dropping by with questions or comments. These “workplace intrusions” used to be common in offices, and no doubt will be again. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that they interfere with our ability to complete tasks, and that we can find them stressful. However, no one’s really considered potential benefits, note Harshad Puranik at the University of Illinois and colleagues. In their new paper in the Journal of Advanced Psychology, the team reports that though there is a dark side to these interruptions, there’s a bright side, too. 

Before the pandemic, Puranik and his colleagues studied 111 people with an average age of about 35 who worked full time. At around noon every work day for three weeks, these participants used simple scales to report any work intrusions (such as being interrupted by someone who wanted to ask questions or to assign them a new task); their stocks of willpower for self-regulation (reporting on their level of agreement with “I feel drained right now”, for example); their sense of how connected they felt with other people at work (a measure of “belongingness”); and also their stress levels. In the late afternoon each day, they completed a second brief survey, which assessed their level of job satisfaction.

Consistent with earlier work, the team found that more work intrusions were associated with less energy for self-regulation — which helps you to immediately return to a task after being disturbed, rather than do a bit of online shopping, for example. What’s more, statistically speaking, this depleted self-regulation explained a further link between more work intrusions and lower job satisfaction. So far, so dark-side.

The team also found, however, that work intrusions are not all bad. In fact, more work intrusions were associated with higher ratings for belongingness. High belongingness ratings were also independently linked with greater job satisfaction; though the association between more disturbances and higher ratings for belongingness was not strong enough to produce a net increase in job satisfaction, it did seem to mitigate the negative effects of being disturbed. “To our knowledge,” they write, “this is the first evidence of a positive relationship between work intrusions and job satisfaction, implying this relationship might be more nuanced than previously thought.” They add that “to our knowledge, this is the first study to show that in a workplace setting, experiencing belongingness can somewhat counteract the effects of self-regulatory resource depletion.”

Though some people will continue to work from home after lockdown restrictions lift, many of us are now preparing to return to offices. Pre-Covid-19, workplace intrusions were described as a “common and consistent” feature of work life for people in many different kinds of jobs. Given that the consensus to date has been that they carry only downsides, these new findings of a belongingness boost are worth noting. “We believe this is a crucial insight,” the team writes.

Excuse me, do you have a minute? An exploration of the dark- and bright-side effects of daily work interruptions for employee well-being.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest