The Negative Effects of Multitasking in the Workplace

Employers have long been encouraging multitasking as a way of increasing employee productivity, but research shows it may do more harm than good. Several studies have shown that high multitaskers experience greater problems focusing on important and complicated tasks, memory impairment of new subject matter, difficulty learning new material, and increased stress levels. This can ultimately lead to problems in delivering a company’s products and services efficiently and competitively.

Decrease in focus and learning
In a study published in the US National Library of Medicine, researchers determined that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to distractions from irrelevant stimuli, resulting in greater problems focusing on important tasks. Employees are bombarded with numerous distractions throughout the workday, from email to social media sites like Facebook. Distracted employees can quickly lose focus on important tasks, often resulting in the loss of creativity and innovation.

Science shows us that the brain can effectively process only one or two ideas or tasks at the same time. When two or more tasks of the same magnitude are juggled, the brain’s normal reaction is to slow down. What occurs is less productivity, instead of more. UCLA psychologists report that multitasking also affects ones ability to learn. This is very detrimental to employers who constantly need to introduce new software to their employees in order to stay competitive. A steep learning curve can take away from valuable time spent on other important company processes.

Memory impairment
Multitasking can also impair memory. A 2009 study conducted by Stafford University showed that constant distractions also impact multitaskers’ ability to recall crucial steps involved in a complicated project. Information overload can result in an impairment of trivial and important information differentiation. Employees experiencing this in the office can miss crucial steps in a project or product line, resulting in a lower quality product or service.

Increased stress levels
Further studies show a negative physical effect in the body, in additional to a negative cognitive effect. Multitaskers will experience a release of stress hormones and adrenaline in the bodies. The result can often became a vicious cycle of constant multitasking, requiring more time to complete a longer list of tasks, experiencing high stress, and multitasking even more to compensate. The constant high stress level can cause employees to become sick more, miss days of work, and decrease their overall work productivity.

Avoiding multitasking overload
HR professionals can use wellness initiatives to help their employees tackle the issue of constant multitasking. Below are some ideas that can provide companies with a healthier alternative:

Remind managers not to overwork employees – Many employees may become compelled to multitask because they have a heavy workload. Remind managers to give employees a realistic and manageable workload. During busy season, encourage managers to hire temps to complete maintenance filing or database work.
Provide plenty of breaks away from the desk – Be sure employees take their breaks away from their desks. Employees who take a break in their workstation may be tempted to multitask things like email or phone messages when they should allow their mind and body to relax.
Provide employees with time management skills – Many employees may try to over multitask in order to compensate for their lack of time management skills. Provide them with onsite or offsite classes they can participate in order to improve those time management skills. A more organised employee will mean a happier and more productive employee in the long run.

The bottom line
Our competitive business world has encouraged multitasking for years. Recent studies, however, show that constant multitasking results in decreased focus, memory and learning impairment, and an increase in stress levels. HR professionals should remind employees about the dangers of multitasking, and work with managers to help employees become less overworked, take needed breaks away from their workstation, and improve their time management skills. These alternatives to constant multitasking will help employees experience a healthier and less stressful work life.

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