What are the negative effects of multitasking in the workplace? - HR Future helps people prepare for the Future of Work and is South Africa's leading print, digital and online Human Resources magazine.

What are the negative effects of multitasking in the workplace?

With the constant flood of emails, phone calls and social media alert notifications, for most of us it seems almost impossible not to multitask on the average workday. Although multitasking may make us feel like we are being more productive, we may in fact be holding back our own performance ability and lowering the quality of our work.

Research suggests that individuals can improve their overall work performance, the ability to complete tasks quickly and ability to retain information when focusing on one task at a time. Molecular biologist John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), notes that “individuals that multitask experience a 40% drop in productivity and they take 50% longer to accomplish a single task whist making up to 50% more errors than workers who focus on a single task at a time.”

In today’s evolving business landscape, many employers require their employees to adopt more than one duty within a job role, which requires juggling several high priority tasks throughout the day.

The rise of multitasking is also fuelled by the constant development of technology, which has assisted businesses in improving communication, productivity and output. Employers have long been encouraging multitasking as a way of increasing employee productivity, however, research shows it may do more harm than good. A research study by workplace design firm Tower Bridge (2016), found that South African employees are interrupted or distracted at the office around 30 - 40 times per day. The research found that a company loses about 330 hours of productive time per 100 employees every day. At an average cost of R120 an hour per employee - which translates into approximately R8000 wasted per employee, per month.

As companies strive to maximise productivity with limited resources, it has become increasingly important for professionals to handle several responsibilities simultaneously. However, multitasking individuals tend to experience a more negative effect regarding important and complicated tasks. The negative effects of multitasking not only affect the individual and the business but the economy as well, especially when employees are constantly interrupted with unnecessary distractions and businesses are unable to deliver services on time resulting in profit losses. This means that while employees are pushing hard to complete multiple tasks at once, their effort is actually counter productive.

A study by Clifford Nass, Stanford University, (2009) reveals that participants who multitask the most are distracted by unimportant information that is stored in their short-term memory. Therefore, multitasking can lead to over-stimulation of ones brain function and this could adversely increase an individuals stress levels. The constant high stress level can cause employees to become more sick, missing days of work, and decreasing their overall work productivity.

To minimise the need, and therefore the negative effects of multitasking it is important that management works together with employees to strategically plan and implement goals in terms of productivity. Tasks should be prioritised and goals should be set out for each day, week or month – to ensure that employees have a clear view of their most important tasks and deadlines. This will allow them to prioritise and feel more comfortable about reaching their goals.

Employers and employees are reminded to be wary of the negative effects of multitasking on productivity, and therefore, business output.

Here are five simple tips to help you remain focused and minimise distraction:

1. Work offline: Disconnect from the internet. This will help you to stop checking social media and news feeds every five minutes.
2. Make a realistic “to do” list: A to do list is great, but a list of 20 items can be demotivating. Rather list the top five things that are most urgent. When these are done, move on to the next.
3. Minimise multitasking: Pick one thing and finish it. Don’t try and do multiple items simultaneously, moving from one to the next every 10 minutes.  
4. Time block: Dedicate certain times to certain tasks. This will help in managing your time, and lead to tasks being completed faster and better.  
5. Make a quiet space: In the open office plan age, ambient noise can stimulate the release of cortisol (stress hormone). This leads to reduced brain function, and higher distraction.   

Lyndy van den Barselaar is the Managing Director at Manpower South Africa.

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