Workplace Distraction

During the 21st century, the economic landscape has undergone a fundamental paradigm shift. In the midst of these accelerated and unprecedented changes, the infrastructure and culture of the workplace has become increasingly dynamic and complex. Distractions in the workplace have emerged as a significant issue, with research consistently demonstrating the long-term and detrimental consequences which arise within a distracted workforce. In numerous studies, employees have admitted to feeling distracted at work, which has in turn affected their productivity levels and well-being. The digital era is centred around collaborative projects, teamwork, big data, digital communications and online networks – contributing to an environment which can be overwhelmingly distracting for workers.

Workplace Distractions Impact Productivity

In this environment, productivity levels are far from optimum and the well-being of workers is also seriously compromised. On an average workday, a significant percentage of a worker’s time is expended on non-productive activities, resulting in a considerable loss of productivity. Workplace distractions therefore facilitate a vicious cycle, wherein a loss in productivity leads to a longer workday, increased stress and frustration, and a lack of engagement and motivation. Evidently, there is a strong causal relationship between a fall in productivity and reduced worker well-being, and the root cause of both of these issues are workplace distractions.

In a knowledge-based economy, intellectual capability is critical to achieving and sustaining corporate growth and expansion. Clearly, optimum levels of productivity can only be attained when workers are allowed to cultivate and develop their cognitive abilities, without any distractions or interruptions. The workforce is the economy’s single most important asset, and it is essential that workplaces invest in efforts which actively address and mitigate as many distractions as possible, or at least coach workers on strategies they can use to effectively respond to such distractions. The less distractions there are, the more workers will be able to focus on meaningful activities, produce desirable outcomes for the workplace and derive satisfaction and fulfilment from the work they do.

The Cost of Distraction

A report published by the Harvard Business Review states that the average employee is interrupted around 50-60 times throughout the work day, and approximately 80% of those interruptions are irrelevant. Moreover, research conducted by Udemy found that almost 40% of Millennial and Gen Z employees admitted to spending two hours or more of their work day looking at their phones for non-work related activities. What’s more, 66% of employees stated that they have never discussed their struggles with workplace distractions to their superiors, which means that this widespread and growing problem is rarely brought under the spotlight. Digital devices aren’t the only source of workplace distractions, however, because additional causes of disruption include small talk and office gossip, pointless meetings, side discussions about other projects or tasks, late arrivals as well as early departures and various technology and productivity problems.

The majority of employees attend more than 62 meetings on a monthly basis, half of which are regarded as a waste of time and therefore resulting in 31 hours spent in unproductive meetings over a month. An infographic by Atlassian demonstrates the annual productivity costs per employee for common workplace distractions, for example:

$1250 addressing spam.
$1800 on unnecessary emails.
$2100 to $4100 for poorly written communications.

The Long-Term Consequences of Workplace Distractions

It would seem obvious that when someone is distracted at work they’re more prone to making mistakes or omission errors because they can’t concentrate, but the potential consequences can be much more far-reaching than initially assumed. For example, when employees are constantly being interrupted they are unable to fulfil expected deadlines or meet performance targets. This in turn leaves them feeling stressed, unmotivated and frustrated.

The resulting fall in productivity means that businesses are unable to provide their products and services at full capacity, affecting revenue and profits. As for employees, their growing dissatisfaction leads to higher levels of stress and increased turnover, incurring yet more financial costs for businesses due to the expenses associated with recruiting and training replacements.

An astonishing 28% of work time is believed to be wasted as a result of workplace distractions and the subsequent time it takes to recover and get back into a productive work flow. Distractions typically consume up to 3 hours per working day, amounting to $24 — $36 million wasted in wages annually for a business with 1000 employees.  It is estimated that workplace distractions are costing businesses in the United States upwards of $650 billion per year, which translates into $4,500 per employee on an annual basis.

Addressing the Distraction Problem

Corporate environments have undergone a dramatic paradigm shift due to digital capabilities, technological developments and cultural changes. Many workers have shifted from office work to being completely remote. Workplace distractions will always exist to some degree, and while limiting these distractions as much as possible is an effective response, it has become impractical in a workplace that is overwhelmed with web and mobile applications. Every day, a new application comes out to increase worker productivity. Unfortunately, old applications are often kept active, creating an overwhelming load for employees to manage. Add to this personal distractions from social media, messaging applications and email, distraction has become ubiquitous. 

Managing employee distraction can be very challenging. With increasing demands and ever changing application stacks, it can be difficult to know how much is too much.

Key recommendations:

Ensure that employees are engaged with their work and are excited about accomplishing individual and group goals. Distraction often results from boredom or feeling like their work doesn’t matter. In a remote work environment, it can be very difficult to know if employees are working on their project, or looking at social media.

Provide access to tools that will help restore focus and calmness. A few minutes with a meditation app, or focus device may be all they need to return to an optimum state of performance. Used regularly, these tools can help build resilience against distraction while promoting focus and calmness.

Offer support and tools for achieving ample sleep. Overworked employees may shortchange their sleep which will impact their performance and health. It is almost impossible to be at your best when you have a sleep deficit. Providing employees with sleep support tools can offer one the best paybacks for businesses by having focused employees and fewer health issues.

Consider programs that measure and reward focus in the same way that companies use devices like the FitBit to promote exercise competitions.
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