This week, Linda Ray, co-director and founder of neuresource group, shares what she discovered from coaching individuals and organisations about the negative impact on productivity that increased stress levels have as a result of the distractions we face everyday.

Workplace stress

Stress and anxiety is on the rise in the workplace. There are some obvious contributors with tough economic times and people being required to do more with less. We propose that one of the most obvious contributors to stress often gets overlooked – ‘information and cognitive overwhelm’. We also believe that maybe we are viewing stress in the wrong way, a concept we will explore in another blog.

Recent evidence that suggests that for every dollar spent on wellbeing programs sees as return on investment of 2.3 dollars. (Beyond Blue Workplace Stress Report 2014) This begs the question as to why we aren’t we seeing a greater focus on programs which address stress and build resilience in the workplace? And the second question is, of the ones that exist, are they broad enough in focus?

Information overload and cognitive overwhelm are not usually an emphasis in programs that try to address stress in the workplace. Yet we know that we are bombarded by more information and distraction than at any time in human history. Given our brain is constantly on the lookout for novelty we are biologically programmed to pay attention to anything that might meet the brains key organising principle to minimise threat and maximise reward. This is why we are addicted to constant email and social media checking. There are more invitations to distraction in our environment than ever before and this calls for a need to get better at managing our attention and focus.

Much of my work of late has been supporting individuals and teams in a coaching context to examine the negative impact on productivity and stress levels as a result of the distractions we face everyday. Distraction management audits identify the key distractors in the workplace. Research suggests that when we are in the middle of heavy cognitive thinking and we are distracted it can take up to 25 minutes to get back into that headspace. Imagine how many times that can happen in a day given the distraction rich environment we operate within. More and more of my coaching practice is focussed on supporting people who identify as being stressed and overloaded. In a recent example, a person I was coaching reported a 50% perceived improvement in productivity just by tweaking a few things in her workplace and implementing a distraction management plan. This included education of colleagues about the times she would work on approvals – once in the morning and later in the afternoon. This action was taken to try and minimise interruptions of up to 40 instances per day. She also moved her desk so she was out of sight of people who may be looking for another staff member or who were themselves looking for a distraction. These changes resulted in significantly less distractions and interruptions. These simple tweaks also had unexpected results for her. She reported feeling less stressed and overwhelmed and this had created the necessary head space to develop 2 new reporting processes that had been on the back burner for over 12 months.

The distraction laden environment we operate in contributes significantly to stress. When we get to the end of the day and our ‘to do list’ is as big or sometimes bigger than when we started the day we can feel we have failed to be productive and this can impact on our sleep as we tussle with overwhelm and guilt and panic. It would seem imperative that it is time to broaden the focus of stress and resilience programs to address factors in our contemporary workplace that contribute to stress. This broader focus should include the following:

Build attentional intelligence – we need to get back in control of our attention and focus

When we manage our attention and focus this can support improved productivity and minimise the stress we feel when our attention is constantly divided. This includes stopping multi-tasking or task-switching and instead uni-tasking.

Distraction audits and management plans – in an attempt to minimise stress we need to uncover the factors that contribute to overwhelm and loss of focus. A simple audit of all of the distractions that vie for our attention and a plan to mitigate these can reduce stress and significantly improve productivity.

Brain breaks – we need to schedule down time in our work day. This means when you feel you have hit the wall rather than pushing through have a quick brain brake or do a simple mindfulness exercise. Whilst this may seem counter intuitive to being productive the research is clear when we have a break and refresh our productivity goes up.

Contact us today to find out how we can support you and your organisation to reduce stress and build resilience.