U.S. worker interruptions costly, research shows

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The chances of you finishing this article without getting interrupted or distracted are slim.

U.S. office workers get interrupted on the job as often as 11 times an hour, costing as much as $588 billion to U.S. business each year, according to research. REUTERS/Shai Goller

U.S. office workers get interrupted on the job as often as 11 times an hour, costing as much as $588 billion to U.S. business each year, according to research.

Adding the distracting lure of checking e-mails, surfing the Internet and chatting by computer, and workers interrupt themselves nearly as much as they are interrupted by others, experts say.

“With instant messaging on your desktop and alerts and e-mail notifications, you set yourself up for it,” said John Putzier, founder of FirStep Inc. business strategists in Prospect, Pennsylvania.

The barrage of interruptions and distractions only worsens at this time of year, experts say.

“We have more things pulling at us,” said Jonathan Spira, chief executive of Basex, a business consulting firm that researched the cost of interruptions.

From online shopping at work to planning the office holiday party, workers are bombarded with distractions, he said.

“These holiday distractions result in more interruptions. It’s certainly a recipe for even less work getting done, no question about it,” he said.

A typical manager is interrupted six times an hour, one recent study showed, while another found the average cubicle worker is interrupted more than 70 times a day.

Other research has found office workers getting interrupted every 11 minutes, while another study said nearly half of workplace interruptions are self-imposed.

A study by Basex found office distractions take up 2.1 hours of the average day -- 28 percent -- with workers taking an average of five minutes to recover from each interruption and return to their original tasks.

Still another study found a group of workers interrupted by e-mail and telephones scored lower on an IQ test than a test group that had smoked marijuana.


Workers live in a state of “continuous partial attention,” said Linda Stone, a Seattle-based writer and lecturer on attention and trends.

“The motivation is ‘I don’t want to miss anything’ because being connected makes me feel important,” she said. “It’s ‘There’s my BlackBerry. There’s my cell phone. What time is it in Europe right now? How many phone calls did I get?’

“It’s a sense of stimulation and busy-ness,” she said.

Plenty of people would be lost without the “multi-tasking” battery of telephones, handheld messaging devices and computer instant messages, said Putzier.

“In some cases, people would go into withdrawal if they weren’t constantly interrupted,” he said. “For some people, interruptions aren’t interruptions to their job. Interruptions are their job.”

Workers tend to be unable to resist the temptation of what Lee Rainie, director of the Washington-based Pew Internet & American Life Project, called “scanning the horizon for any and all new possibilities.”

“Why don’t you just shut off your e-mail? Why don’t you shut off your phone or close your door? The answer is because I can never tell where a more important message will fly in,” he said.

Putzier puts the blame on younger Generation X and Generation Y workers. “They are the big-time abusers. If they need something or want something, they don’t pick up the phone and ask for an appointment. They just barge in, and it’s all about them,” he said.

Basex calculated the cost of interruptions in lost working hours to U.S. business is $588 billion a year.

“It’s a lot of time and productivity wasted,” said Bary Sherman, head of the Institute for Business Technology-USA in San Diego, California, that has developed a White Collar Productivity Index.

Rainie called the pace of interruptions “a double-edged proposition.”

“People like the convenience and possibilities that this technology affords them when they want to use it,” he said, “but they don’t like the intrusions that it creates for them when other people want to express the same rights.”

The “constantly connected” trend is sowing the seeds of its own destruction, said Stone, who said, “We are overstimulated, overwhelmed and unfulfilled.”