How Workplace Distractions Affected Stress Response In New Study

For their study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (a very long name for the study of hormone fluctuations) this month, the team pitted 90 healthy college-age participants in “a realistic but controlled group office environment.”

They were split into three rooms, each person given their own computer. From there, the participants were asked to complete tasks like scanning, sales calculations, and scheduling on behalf of a fictitious insurance company.

Then, the interruptions came: Over the 85-minute study, one group was exposed to social stressors (they were told that they would have to make their case for a promotion shortly) and workplace interruptions (their managers pinged them with questions multiple times via chat). The second group was only exposed to the social stressors, and the third group was a control.

Participants were hooked up to a heart rate monitor the whole time. They also provided saliva samples and answered questions about their stress levels six times throughout the study. The results? “We found significantly higher levels of perceived stress, greater decreases of calmness as well as a significant worsening of mood in the stress conditions,” the study reads. Those who were exposed to social stress and workplace interruptions also had a higher heart rate during and after interruptions, compared to the control group.

Interestingly, they found that participants who fielded work interruptions had higher spikes in the stress hormone cortisol but experienced less fear about the upcoming promotion interview. This indicates that the quick release of cortisol—also known as the fight-or-flight hormone—had a positive effect on psychological stress in the short term. However, previous research shows that unmanaged chronically high cortisol can contribute to weight gain, headaches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, gut issues, and more.

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