Interruptions in the workplace may lead to physical stress, a new study has found. If this stress becomes chronic, it can lead to states of exhaustion that have a negative impact on public health and carry a significant economic cost.
The study was published in the journal ‘Psychoneuroendocrinology’.
According to the Job Stress Index 2020 compiled by Stiftung Gesundheitsforderung Schweiz, a Swiss health foundation, almost one-third of the Swiss workforce experience work-related stress.
In a digital early warning system at the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich, an interdisciplinary team is working to pre-empt such states of exhaustion by developing a digital early warning system that uses machine learning to detect stress in the workplace in real-time.
"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," said psychologist Jasmine Kerr. Kerr is driving the project forward together with mathematician Mara Nagelin and computer scientist Raphael Weibel.
The three doctoral students, who all lead authors on a recent study, used a university platform to recruit 90 participants, who agreed to take part in an experiment lasting just under two hours. To conduct their experiment, Kerr, Nagelin and Weibel transformed the Decision Science Laboratory at ETH Zurich into three group office environments. Each workstation was equipped with a chair, a computer with monitor and kits for collecting samples of saliva.
Playing the parts of employees at a fictional insurance company, the participants were asked to perform typical office tasks, such as typing up information from hand-written forms and arranging appointments with clients. While they did so, the researchers observed their psychobiological responses. At a total of six points during the experiment, the participants rated their mood on questionnaires, while a portable ECG device continuously measured their heartbeat. The used the saliva samples to measure the concentration of the hormone cortisol.
Later in their experiment, the researchers divided the participants into three groups and exposed each group to a different level of stress. All groups were given the same workload. In the middle of the experiment, all participants were visited by two actors masquerading as representatives of the insurance company's HR department. For participants in the control group, the actors staged a sales pitch dialogue, while in the two stress groups they pretended to be looking for the most suitable candidates for a promotion.
The difference between the two stress groups was that participants in the first group stopped work only to have samples of their saliva taken. But the participants in the second stress group had to contend with additional interruptions in the form of chat messages from their superiors urgently requesting information.
Upon evaluation, the data indicated that asking participants to compete for a fictional promotion was enough to raise their heart rate and trigger the release of cortisol.
"Participants in the second stress group released almost twice the level of as those in the first stress group," Nagelin said.
Weibel added: "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."
What surprised the researchers were participants' subjective responses in terms of how they perceived psychological stress. They observed that participants in the second stress group, who were interrupted by chat messages, reported being less stressed and in a better mood than the participants in the first stress group, who did not have these interruptions.
Interestingly, although the two groups rated the situation as equally challenging, the second group found it less threatening. The researchers inferred that the release of cortisol triggered by the additional interruptions mobilised more physical resources, which in turn led to a better emotional and cognitive response to stress.
It is also possible that the interruptions distracted the participants from the impending social stress situation, meaning that they felt less threatened and thus less stressed.