Are all work interruptions bad?

'Individuals experiencing work-related interruptions tend to be more engaged at work'

Are all work interruptions bad?

For many workers, an unwanted interruption can be an annoying experience as they struggle to get back on track with an urgent deliverable.

But are all work disruptions equal? Could some be beneficial?

Yes, according to research from the University of Missouri in Columbia.

The report, “To What Do I Owe This Visit? The Drawbacks and Benefits of In-Role and Non-Role Intrusions” in the Journal of Management, was conducted over three separate studies in different countries, including U.S. and India, and attempts to counter popular misconceptions.

“A lot of the narratives around interruptions were these negative things: ‘They’re detrimental’; ‘We want to avoid them at all costs.’ And we were really interested in considering, while there certainly is likely some truth to some of the statements that are being made, we thought that it was a little bit more nuanced than that,” says John Bush, assistant professor at the Trulaske College of Business in the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., and a researcher for the report.

“Our main motivation is trying to see, are there some actual benefits that people are getting from being interrupted at work?”

Two main categories

The study looked at two types of interruptions that are common to workplaces: work-related and non-work-related.

The first one happens when a colleague asks a question about an ongoing project or a manager assigns a new task, whereas non-work-related is typically small talk about weekend plans, new movies coming out or something sports-related.

When work-related diversions happen, engagement rises, says Bush.

“Those individuals experiencing work-related interruptions tended to be more engaged at work, which was a little bit contrary to popular narratives around normal responses to interruptions.”

As well, collaboration tends to pick up after the same digressions, he says: “If you were interrupted on a work-related topic, individuals tend to collaborate more on a day-to-day basis.”

But when it came to conversations around topics about anything except work, the results were different, according to Bush.

“On the flip side, and somewhat more consistent with more common narratives, we actually found that with non-work-related interruption, people were less engaged.”

Seemingly friendly conversations among coworkers did not bring on many positive effects, he says.

“We actually found no evidence of any significant impact of non-work-related interruptions on collaboration so that was a little bit of a surprising finding for us.”

While people working at home think that they typically spend 42 minutes per day for breaks, when you factor in biological needs, entertainment, time spent communicating with coworkers and other chores and errands at home, they are actually taking breaks that average 2.7 hours, according to a separate report.

‘Cognitive shift’

So why would certain interruptions actually be beneficial? It could have something to do with the “cognitive shift” that takes place, according to Bush.

“One key differentiation we made was the extent to which a cognitive shift is necessary. Shifting from one work task to another work conversation is not quite as substantial as shifting from a work-related task to a non-work-related conversation and then essentially having to shift back. The one thing we think is happening is there’s not really a significant cognitive shift that is necessary so the break in your own original engagement is not quite as strong when the work-related interruption occurs. That’s our main theorizing.”

When deep into work, says Bush, sometimes there can be a “bogging down” effect that may impede progress and “this work-related interruption allows you to have a little bit of a cognitive break and so once you return to your work after that interruption essentially, it’s more of an invigorating experience, as opposed to a debilitating [one], so it gives your mind a little bit of a break so that you can now return to your task. But again, the break is not so significant; the shift is not so significant that it’s impossible for you to return to that task.”

In the case of the non-related side, “the mental break is so strong, it’s really disengaging you from your work in any capacity and so it’s putting you in a totally different mindset,” he says. “Because of that shift, it just becomes harder to return to that task then what we would have expected from work-related and the results tend to bear that out… we did find that there was a significant decrease in engagement following these non-work-related interruptions.”

For HR, it’s not that personal conversations should be outlawed at work, says Bush.

“What’s really happening there’s other things at play there and there are other benefits of having personal conversations at work,” he says. “We definitely have research that has shown the benefits of having friends at work, or the benefits in terms of promoting things like team cohesion and a lot of those things can be promoted by having these personal conversations.”

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