Getting interrupted at work can have an alarming effect on your stress levels

If you’re like most of us, daily work life is filled with interruptions and metaphorical fires that need to be addressed immediately.

Unless you’re blessed with a corner office with a door and a lock, most coworkers have unhindered access to your workspace and your attention. 

However, several studies have recently uncovered the lesser-known but significant impacts of interruptions, especially regarding your stress levels. 

Especially with the increased stress with many transitioning to online environments, the skills we perfected in the past are not as applicable in this new online world.

A Switzerland workplace interruption stress study

Psychologist Jasmine Kerr from ETH Zurich in Switzerland recently conducted a social experiment to determine the measure of stress and the impact of social pressure and interruptions have on office employees. To make the environment as realistic as possible, Kerr utilized a real-world office environment with over 90 employees.

The workplace experiment was divided into three separate groups, a control group and two unique experimental groups. The control group was tasked with everyday activities with minimal interruptions. 


The two experimental groups were asked to perform the same functions, while each group was subjected to different interruptions and stresses. The first experimental group was told they would need to prepare for a job interview and later participate in one. The second experimental group was interrupted through computer messages. The messages asked for regular updates to their work progress.

Analyzing the results

To judge the amount of stress the experimental groups experienced, researchers utilized surveys and saliva samples to measure cortisol levels (stress hormones) in their bodies. 

One of the experiment’s shocking results was the difference in stress and cortisol levels experienced by each test group. For instance, many would believe those tasked with mentally preparing for a job interview while still required to complete basic tasks would experience considerably higher stress levels.

However, the study results indicated that those who received several constant interruptions through micromanaging chat messages and updates were much more stressed than those with the upcoming job interview.

While the verdict is still out on why exactly the smaller interruptions may have been more stressful, it’s apparent even minimal interruptions are significant to worker wellbeing and productivity.

What this means for us

Even though our world is turning to a more mobile workplace environment, it’s essential we realize how even the smallest interruptions affect us both internally and externally.

More online time means more potentially more interruptions through chat messages as our supervisors attempt to navigate leadership and accountability in an online environment.

Creating clear and respectful boundaries

One of the best ways to address work interruptions is to create respectful boundaries and focus on communication with our coworkers and supervisors.

Rather than becoming secretly frustrated when the guy from the next cubicle wants help with his project, setting “do not disturb” away times may be the perfect solution to our interruption issues.

Using clear communication and defined available “in office” times can help us take advantage of concentrating on our tasks at hand and delegating specific periods to specifically address the obligatory fires that inevitably arise during the day.