Interruptions stress the body but may calm the mind

Interruptions stress the body but may calm the mind

Written by Robby Berman on November 7, 2020 — Fact checked by Allison Kirsop, Ph.D.

A Swiss study finds that being interrupted while we work produces a paradoxical effect.

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When you work in an office, you have to remain productive despite continual interruptions. After a while, responding to questions, texts, calls, and emails becomes less annoying as you develop the habit of calmly picking up where you left off.

However, new research from Switzerland finds that this calm is only superficial.

Continual interruptions at work lead to an unconscious increase in the stress hormone cortisol.

The study finds that although we may think continual interruptions do not bother us, they affect us on a physiological level.

The study appears in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Reasons for the study

A recent study by Stiftung Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, Job Stress Index 2020, reveals that almost a third of Swiss office workers experience workplace stress.

Concerned about the health effects of chronic stress — which may include exhaustion alongside other adverse outcomes — a multidisciplinary team from the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich embarked on a mission to find ways to detect and remediate workplace stress.

The team hopes to develop a machine learning-based tool that can detect stressors before they become a chronic problem.

“Our first step was to find out how to measure the effects of social pressure and interruptions — two of the most common causes of stress in the workplace,” says psychologist Jasmine Kerr.

The other team members are mathematician Mara Nägelin and computer scientist Raphael Weibel. All three are doctoral candidates 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.”


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