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In Defense of Office Distraction

A young doctor named Hans Selye noticed something when he was in his medical residency at the University of Prague: many of his patients on his rounds had similar complaints, even though they had a wide range of diseases. At the time, medical diagnosis would ignore things such as looking tired, having no appetite, and losing weight. They were often considered, according to Selye, “the syndrome of just being sick.” This observation came back to him later when he was getting his fellowship at McGill University conducting experiments injecting hormones into rats. His autopsies were revealing maladies in the rats such as enlargement of the adrenal glands, atrophy of the lymphatic system, and peptic ulcers of the stomach. What was most surprising was that these effects were not caused by a particular hormone because they were showing up in every rat tested.

Before Selye’s observations, the concept of psychological stress existed as an acute pressure applied to an individual. But Selye made a distinction between acute, fight-or-flight stress and the response to chronically applied stressors, calling the condition “general adaptation syndrome.” This negative response to chronically applied stressors is what we now understand stress to be. There has been a mountain of research on stress, much of it coming from Dr. Selye as he wrote 1,600 scientific articles and 40 books on the subject. But even with all of the advancement in understanding how chronic stress can affect humans, we still have much to learn about what causes it. This is important when it comes to how we think about the workplace, stress is a major problem for workers and employers alike so there is an ongoing conversation on how to help prevent it. Many have argued that one of the things that causes stress is a distraction-filled work environment and has led fingers to be pointed at certain open office layouts. 

Stress is hard to test for, we all respond differently to stress-causing events. A group of scientists at the University of Trier in France developed a system that has been the standard for understanding stress response. The Trier social stress test varies but it includes giving a presentation and doing arithmetic in front of judges. The thought is that most people will be stressed by one of these tasks. The math portion, for those of you interested, was originally designed for the participant to count backward from 1,022 in steps of 13. If a mistake is made, then they must start again from the beginning, something that I suspect very few people can do without some aggravation. Levels of stress are deduced with surveys, heart rate monitors, blood pressure sensors, and saliva samples. Together these can be a proxy for the biological reaction to chronic stress 

This technique, or a variation of it at least, was used in a recent study that sets out to understand how different workplace distractions induce stress. To do this researchers in Zurich, Switzerland divided their lab up into three different offices and asked participants in each to sit down at a computer and complete job tasks for a fictional insurance company that they received in their inboxes. The control group was allowed to work relatively undistracted. The second group was surprised by a group of actors who came in and interviewed each candidate in turn for a “promotion.” The last group had these same actors distracting them in-person but were also interrupted repeatedly by a chat box that would appear on their computer screen.

Now, the obvious outcome of this experiment would be that the more distractions each group faced, the more stressed that they would be. But this was not the case. Researchers wrote: “Previous studies found interruptions at work to be irritating and strenuous (Baethge and Rigotti, 2013). However, we were unable to infer a stress-eliciting effect of work interruptions independent of psychosocial stress.”

In other words, they were not able to see much more of a physiological response to more distraction (which usually takes the form of increased adrenal and heightened heart rate and blood pressure) between each group. There was certainly a reaction by the nervous system but it seemed to correlate more closely with the amount of work that needed to be done, not the amount of distraction being thrown at the participant. Some parts of the study even showed that interruption doesn’t elicit stress particularly if they are related to the main task. It turns out that we may not be able to multitask well, we are quite capable of dealing with distractions. 

One possible explanation given by the researchers is that the interruptions were not sufficient to lead to overt changes of stress. How much can someone really care about performing poorly at a fake job, after all? But the reason that the Trier stress test was adopted is because a significant amount of people do take even fake social pressure seriously. There is also the issue of statistical significance, the study used only around 90 participants so they might have just selected a group that was particularly unaffected by distraction.

Psychology is considered a “soft science” because it attempts to quantify one of the most complicated things in existence, the human brain. The imperfect ability to apply test results to a population at large makes studies like these only marginally actionable but I do think that there is a lot to be learned by them. The fact that a busy office would increase workplace stress seems so obvious that we all have taken it for granted but the reality might be much more complicated. The open office has been ridiculed and touted and ridiculed again for the way that it increases workplace distraction but I think it’s time to understand what that distraction really means when it comes to stress. Plus, as we now know exactly how distracting working from home can be, just feet away from a pantry, bed, or television, we have to weigh offices against the negatives of different kinds of work environments. Distractions are obviously bad for productivity, but could lead to other important byproducts like collaboration and community. No one wants to suffer the fate of those poor rats that were experimented on by Dr. Selye but it turns out that a bustling office isn’t going to be the thing that causes it. 

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