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Boost Employee Productivity by Reducing Distractions and Stress

At a time when many employers are keeping employee headcounts down, the importance of productivity has never been greater. Streamlining is good, but it can be a grave mistake to assume productivity will increase when you spread the same workload over fewer employees. That is, unless you also confront long-standing impediments to productivity that will only be exacerbated when payroll is cut to the bone. Those obstacles: the interrelated challenges of employee distraction and stress. Practical solutions exist, but require management to have a fix on the problem, then to make to make it a priority to put them to use.

The first step is simply to come to grips with the cost of employee distraction. It isn’t just the diversion of workers’ time, but, frequently, the “depletion of employees’ psychic energy,” according to Geraldine Markel, PhD., an educational psychologist who specializes in education and performance and is a leading authority on workplace distraction.

Based on her observations while working with businesses, she believes few employers truly understand the impact of employee distraction. That’s why she has seen such a scarcity of clear policies and procedures designed to attack the problem.

According to Markel’s own research, she concluded that “a worker’s mind wanders about one-third of the workday.” Much of that is triggered by interruptions. A one-minute interruption can cost an employee several minutes to get back on track with the original task, depending on the degree of concentration required. And that loss of productive work multiplied by the number of employees can be devastating to the employer’s bottom line.

Demons of Distraction

Markel has presented help for employers in her book, “Defeating the Demons of Distraction,” where she identifies nine categories of distractions that are common.

Here are four such categories where she says employers can do much to help minimize the demons of distraction.

  • Technology: “It invites you to get lost in a maze of texting, chatting, surfing, and gaming long after the time spent is appropriate or useful.”
  • Others: This includes bosses, coworkers and family members “who believe you should be available 24/7.”
  • Activities: This demon “attacks you when you inappropriately multitask, rush or face tedious, difficult tasks.
  • Stress: This energy and concentration-draining distraction “is activated by internal or external triggers, or a combination of both.” It is particularly harmful when employees are unconscious of their stress levels. That lack of awareness makes them even more prone to mistakes and bad decisions.

Frequently, the work-based distraction of stress stems from the fact that business owners and supervisors themselves are running fast in many directions. In battling their own distractions and multi-tasking challenges, Markel says, they often neglect to give the employees they supervise specific enough guidance on their priorities. “When employees are uncertain about their goals, they become distracted. It’s hard for them to focus” in general, let alone on uncertain priorities.

Polling Employees Sets the Stage

Before employers try to tackle the distractions they assume are present, by implementing policies and procedures, Markel suggests an alternative. Instead, raise awareness of possible distractions and how extensive those distractions are, by surveying employees. Employers can start the process by having employees ask themselves questions like these:

  • Am I bothered by constant, irritating distractions?
  • Are distractions making me inattentive, forgetful, disorganized, stressed out?
  • How much more could I accomplish if I wasn’t so distracted?
  • How do distractions effect my ability to do my best work? Do they keep me from fulfilling the roles and responsibilities of my job?

Raising awareness of distraction and measuring the extent of the problem are good starting points. Beyond that, when you ask questions like those above, you convey a reassuring message to employees that you want to take steps to tackle the problem.

As a consultant to business clients, the problems she is most often asked to address are the distracting demons of technology and of stress. That may mean tackling the issue from multiple angles, such as, creating realistic performance expectations, employee wellness programs and other actions employees may need to initiate independently.

Policies to minimize technology distractions, particularly e-mail, can be as simple as having employees limit their e-mail contact lists to the bare minimum, and discouraging employees from responding to e-mails that do not require a specific, timely answer. Most tactics are common sense; the important thing is to formalize your guidance by putting it in writing. This also gives employees permission to protect themselves from the needless distraction of e-mails that don’t need attention.

Quality “Think Time”

Many jobs that involve concentration require a ten-minute break on an hourly basis, to fortify employees to combat self-generated distractions, according to Markel. “Investing” 10 minutes in this way can yield more total productive work time.

Markel encourages supervisors to establish procedures “that foster quality think time for staff members and teams.” That can include implementing what she calls “the electronic lockdown,” in which employees shut down all digital equipment, except what is required for the task at hand, for at least 15 minutes.

Creating quality think time often can benefit employees at all levels of the organization. It can be accomplished by something as simple as asking employees to take ten minutes when they arrive at work to map out and prioritize their tasks for the day — and build them into a formal schedule. Employees can be given another ten minutes at the end of the day to assess the day’s accomplishments, and how things could have gone better.

Employees also should be coached on how to productively confront people who distract them, like chatty coworkers, and even supervisors. It can’t just be a matter of assertiveness — i.e. standing up to one’s boss. The focus, Markel said, “should be on productivity.” If supervisor is a frequent source of distraction, the onus may be on the employee to communicate the problem (in productivity terms) with that supervisor.

Whatever the specific distraction-combating tactics, the bottom line, according to Markel, is for business owners and supervisors “to understand that if there is a need for high productivity and low stress, you have to establish quality conditions at work to create a non-distracting environment, with policies and procedures to make it happen.”