This study will make you never want to multitask at work again

Multitasking is usually looked at as a desirable trait in an employee; no manager wants to hire someone who’s going to become overwhelmed as soon as the phone rings while they’re writing an email. Similarly, during job interviews and on resumes, we’re all idealized versions of ourselves, capable of putting out any “fires” throughout a workday and more than willing to take on more responsibility. 

A new set of research, though, is providing some fascinating food for thought regarding modern work culture and expectations. Just because one can multitask and get multiple items accomplished simultaneously, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should.

Researchers from the University of Houston have concluded that multitasking on the job often leads to a flurry of negative emotions (fear, sadness), and more times than not, a hostile work environment.

In the ongoing discussion surrounding employee-employer best practices, these findings are another compelling piece of evidence that sometimes what’s best for a company isn’t best for its employees.

“Not only do people experience stress with multitasking, but their faces may also express unpleasant emotions and that can have negative consequences for the entire office culture,” explains senior study author Ioannis Pavlidis, director of the Computational Physiology Laboratory at the University of Houston, in a university release.

To analyze the emotional and mental impact of multitasking and constant interruptions, researchers examined the facial reactions of two groups of participants as they attempted to write an essay. One group was told to answer a series of emails before starting the essay, so they wouldn’t have to multitask, while the other group’s writing was constantly interrupted by a flurry of emails that they were told had to be answered ASAP.

“Individuals who engaged in multitasking appeared significantly sadder than those who did not. Interestingly, sadness tended to mix with a touch of fear in the multitasking cohort,” Pavlidis says. “Multitasking imposes an onerous mental load and is associated with elevated stress, which appears to trigger the displayed sadness. The simultaneous onset of fear is intriguing and is likely rooted in subconscious anticipation of the next disruption.”

So, it appears that people who work in environments filled with constant interruptions and overlapping tasks become conditioned to expect, or perhaps dread, the inevitable next assignment.

Let’s face it; the modern office is almost defined by a constant stream of tasks and interruptions. Granted, things are a bit different these days due to COVID-19, but normally, millions of employees walk into work each morning and are greeted with numerous problems to solve or deadlines to meet. Most days, those tasks don’t slow down until the end of the workday. It’s the ubiquitous and constant nature of multitasking in modern offices that makes it so detrimental to employees’ mental health, according to the study’s authors.

Even the study participants who were allowed to get all their emails written in one shot still displayed some negative emotions while they were answering the correspondences. Researchers theorize this is because of how long it took to respond to all of them. Still, the emotional drawbacks of getting one thing done at a time, even if it feels a bit more tedious, don’t last nearly as long as multitasking.

With this in mind, the research team recommends that the next time an employee is trying to get something done but is interrupted by an email or phone call, it’s a better idea to just get back to that person once the task at hand has been accomplished. Unfortunately, job pressures often make this approach unfeasible.

Just like yawns, bad moods and negative emotions can spread like wildfire in a traditional office setting.

“Emotional contagion can spread in a group or workplace through the influence of conscious or unconscious processes involving emotional states or physiological responses,” the study reads.

Today, so many of us find ourselves working from home, which begs the question: is multitasking as detrimental within a home-office environment? 

There’s no chance of perpetuating a hostile work environment for others (besides maybe Zoom calls), but multitasking almost certainly extracts the same emotional toll for remote workers. On a positive note, working from home makes it much easier and less stressful to tackle work assignments or problems one at a time, without having to worry about a manager or co-workers looking over one’s shoulder.

“Currently, an intriguing question is what the emotional effect of multitasking at home would be, where knowledge workers moved their operation during the COVID 19 pandemic,” Pavlidis ponders.

The full study can be found here, published in Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.