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August 4, 2020
by Patricia Tomasi

The Emotional Toll Of Multitasking At Work

August 4, 2020 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

Are you good at multitasking? That's a question often heard in a job interview but is it emotionally healthy to work with constant interruptions? Does it increase stress and affect how we relate to our coworkers? A new study looked at the emotional cost of frequent interruptions during cognitive work.

“We knew that knowledge workers who engaged in frequent interruptions exhibited higher stress levels,” study author Ioannis Pavlidis of the University of Houston told us. “We measured this physiologically. Accordingly, we had expected that they would probably experience negative emotions, but we had no idea about the exact type of emotions and their intensity.”

Pavlidis told us he and his team chose to research this topic because we are in the era of the  knowledge economy.

“Knowledge workers proliferate and gain importance,” Pavlidis told us. “Almost all of them multitask. Hence, multitasking is a ubiquitous and consequential behavior that begs for attention.” 

To test their theory, the researchers ran a controlled experiment with 26 participants in two groups: a `batch’ group and a `continual’ group. Both groups were tasked to write an essay that required critical thinking. They also had to answer eight emails.

The batch group composed the essay largely uninterrupted, because they answered all the emails in a batch towards the beginning of the writing task. The continual group was interrupted every few minutes with an incoming email, which they had to answer on the spot. 

The participants were imaged continuously with a camera. This imagery was fed into a neural network that was giving instantaneous probabilistic estimates for seven emotions, based on the participants’ facial expressions. These initial estimates were further processed using a novel method, capable of accounting for both pure and mixed emotions. This new method provided a far more accurate and nuanced picture of the people’s displayed emotions with respect to legacy methods. 

“The participants who multitasked appeared significantly sadder than the group that did not multitask,” Pavlidis told us. “Interestingly, this sadness was mixed with a touch of fear.”

Pavlidis and his team were surprised with the persistence and intensity of displayed sadness in the multitask group. They were also surprised with the mixing of fear.

“Multitasking appears to have a creeping emotional cost,” Pavlidis told us. “This is very important, because not only multitasking is practiced widely, but also continuously. In light of our findings, it is this sustained nature of multitasking that makes it dangerous in my view.”

In open office spaces, continuously displayed negative emotions are seen by everybody and likely contribute to emotion contagion. The latter is bound to affect organizational culture, creating a feedback loop that would be difficult to break. Importantly, all these processes are undercurrent phenomena, that is, they are there working subconsciously but barely anybody notices them.

“Because of practical office pressures, it is difficult to get rid of multitasking altogether,” Pavlidis told us. “However, knowing now its emotional effects, it would be wise for people to try to limit multitasking by organizing their work smartly. For example, they can handle emails at designated times during the day (morning, mid-day, late afternoon) instead of handling them on the fly.”

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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