One billion working days in the UK are lost each year due to multitasking according to a Ranstad poll. That might sound like a contradiction, but constantly switching between tasks can destroy productivity and waste time. Studies have found that the accumulated time that is wasted by switching between tasks hinders productivity; makes our lives more stressful and affects our motivation and mood.
The problem with multitasking
Our brains simply cannot cope with multitasking effectively, according to research by the University of Michigan. When people switch between tasks, there are small time costs each instance. For regular multitaskers, these time costs can accumulate to significant amounts that inhibit overall efficiency. The University of Sussex have also found that multitasking can hinder brain functions. Spending extended periods of time on multiple electronic devices at once can reduce grey-matter density in the brain, thus reducing cognitive control and resulting in poor attention span.
What does multitasking mean for the workplace?
The impact of multitasking depends on the specific tasks in question. You may be able to do lots of different housework tasks at home at the same time, such as folding laundry while watching TV. In the workplace however, while it may seem that people are getting lots done in a short period of time, multitasking is unproductive because it often results in poor quality work and more mistakes being made. If, for example, you are juggling a client conference call and interruptions from colleagues whilst responding to an email to meet an urgent deadline, this could result in errors. Juggling multiple tasks and distractions at once can cause anxiety, impairing our judgement and ability to work effectively.
The key to working more efficiently
The first thing to do to begin working more efficiently is to create a to-do list, scheduling a realistic amount of time needed to complete tasks and then concentrating fully on each task, avoiding any distractions. This means not checking your phone, or email or chatting to a colleague while you are completing the task. In fact, it can even be useful to schedule in some time during your day for distractions and interruptions to help you avoid them during key work periods. This helps to prevent wasting time while deciding which tasks need to be completed. If you do have to switch between tasks, try to avoid switching back and forth.
How to help employees minimise multitasking
To get the best from your staff, encouraging them to take breaks is a key way to helping them minimise multitasking. If they are feeling overwhelmed by their work and not able to take some time out, they will likely feel even under even more pressure to multitask. Creating a supportive working environment is important in helping staff feel less pressured and distracted.
Encourage staff to get support
In small doses, stress may help motivate some people to do their best, however chronic stress and feeling overwhelmed can have a negative impact on productivity at work. Stress can encompass mental health issues to worries about work, home or finances. Employers should consider introducing an employee assistance programme (EAP) to help staff get the help they need to deal with the causes of their stress. EAPs offer free and confidential counselling services that allow employees to talk through issues or concerns that may be affecting them. Through the EAP, employees have access to caring and professional support that encourages them to talk about problems that may be putting them under strain.
With all the distractions we have around us each day, it is unrealistic for employers to believe they can control the amount of multitasking their employees will do each day. Employers can, however, implement effective support strategies that encourage employees to work more positively and acknowledge when work is approached in an organised and focused way.