The science is in: Interruptions Kill Productivity and Increase Stress (with sources)

Beatriz Boavida
Apr 29, 2024
14 min read

There are many claims about work productivity - but we did the work and gathered the actual science for you.

The problem in today’s work environment is that we are constantly being bombarded by notifications, being required to attend unproductive meetings, or receiving calls from managers and colleagues about issues that are not so urgent.

In this article, we collected scientific facts that back up our claim that interruptions kill great work and that we need software solutions that make it easier to do deep work.

At Workjoy, we believe and advocate that focused work leads to great results. 

But more than beliefs, we base our culture and mission on facts backed by science.

93.6% of the annual productivity loss is due to distractions

We often take the problem of interruptions lightly and we rarely make the aftermath. Bialowolski et al. (2020) conducted a study to determine just how serious the impact of distractions at work was on the company’s results. They compared it with a scenario we often relate to costly outcomes: sick-related absenteeism.

They found that 93.6% of the annual productivity loss of a major US manufacturer was due to distractions, while only 6.4% resulted from health-related absenteeism. This means distractions at work cost this company almost 15x more than health-related absenteeism.

As one may think these results may just apply to that particular company, the researchers did a second analysis with data from a company in Poland. The results were the same: distracted employees cost considerably more than sick ones.

As a leader, it is your job to protect your employees’ time from unnecessary interruptions, even the ones that come from you. It is time to create a culture based on focused work instead of urgency of reply. It is less costly to do so than to leave things as is.

60.6% of people are unable to do just 1-2 hours of deep work without a distraction

In August 2022, Crucial Learning surveyed 1,600 people on distractions and productive work. 60.6% mentioned they are rarely or never able to do just 1-2 hours of deep work without a distraction.

In the same study, 1 in 3 people reported they can only focus on a task for 10 minutes or less before getting distracted.

In Europe, there was a study developed with German companies’ data where researchers concluded that employees (in knowledge-intensive professions) are interrupted in their work on average 15x per hour, which means every 4 minutes. This results in a loss of 3 full days per month.

If your team is doing outstanding work under these conditions, imagine the results they may achieve if they work in an environment that promotes focused work. As a leader, you can self-analyse how many times you interrupt your team, and how you can do so differently. When you set the example, your team will follow.

Interruptions of 4.4 seconds triple the rate of errors and small interruptions can lead to double or triple the rates of errors on the main task

When we are not fully present in what we are doing, we make mistakes. 

Mistakes are never desired, but in some professions they are critical.

Many people still believe this is only true when the interruption is long enough for us to consciously lose our train of thought. But that could not be far from the truth.

In a study published in 2014, Altmann et al. noticed that interruptions of 4.4 seconds tripled the rate of sequential errors after people returned to the initial task. And interruptions of just 2.8 seconds were enough to double the rate of errors.

For each interruption your team suffers, there is a high chance that they will have to spend extra time revising their work before delivering it only because of the potential mistakes they will make.

It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after being distracted at work

This is one of the most highly shared statistics on the pitfalls of interruptions at work.

Gloria Mark has dedicated the past couple of decades to studying the role distractions and technology play in our attention spans and focused work. She concluded that on average it takes as 23 minutes and 15 seconds to reach the same level of flow we were at before the interruption.

This means if you are interrupted 3x, you are losing almost an hour of productive work.

73.2% of workers feel overwhelmed when they are constantly interrupted

Although interruptions make us work faster to make up for the time lost, Mark et al. (2008) concluded that interruptions are also responsible for increased stress, frustration, time pressure, and effort. Hence, they end up being energy drainers. In their study, they simulated an office environment where 48 participants were periodically interrupted by their supervisor.

In 2022, Crucial Learning surveyed 1,600 people to analyse how interruptions and the inability to focus were perceived as a cost. 

These are the results they obtained:

This means interruptions are powerful enough to negatively impact your team’s energy, motivation, engagement and productivity. If you wish to achieve great results, your team needs to be feeling at their best.

43% of people are spending too much time switching between different online tools

Nowadays, we have tons of software solutions to support our daily tasks in and outside of work. The problem is that the great majority of them demand our constant attention, so we are bombarded with visual and sound notifications that allure us to check different apps.

Qatalog, along with researchers at Cornell University’s Ellis Idea Lab, developed a study on how professionals use software apps to manage their work and generate new ideas. They conducted 3 surveys with 1,000 people each. One of their main conclusions is that too many productivity tools are actually killing productivity.

43% of people report spending too much time switching between different online tools.

As a leader, you should ensure the software your team resorts to do their work promotes focus and alignment instead of creating more chaos - or, at least, you can create guidelines on how to do focused work considering the tools available.

In a typical day, people spend 59 minutes simply looking for information trapped within tools and applications

Qatalogs’s study also found that people spend about an hour of their day looking for information across multiple platforms. This easily sums up to 5 hours a week.

It comes as no surprise that 69% of people report that it is time-consuming to find the information they need to do their job.

Although 59% say they have a central place to gather information related to work, 54% still feel the platforms used make it harder to find information.

Your team may be losing valuable hours of work just looking for information to do their work.

People interrupt at least 2 people to find what they need up to 5 times a day

Each software has its own specificities, and not every solution facilitates the sharing and effortless retrieval of information. This means that it may be a pain to navigate the software system to find what we are looking for.

As a response, people look to obtain a faster and easier answer by speaking with someone who knows. 58% of people said they found themselves needing to ask more than one person for help to access the information they need. Hence, in general, people interrupt at least 2 people to find what they need up to 5x a day.

This is the formula to create compound chaos, as people are sending more messages, hopping on more video calls, and making more interruptions.

One of the best things you can do for your team is to use software or create a system that does not lead to cluttered workspaces and where information can be easily retrieved.

Interruptions can result in annual costs of 58.5 billion euros for companies

Interruptions are not just a synonym for long lost hours of productive work, they also imply great costs for companies.

In a study versing German enterprises (637 people from 25 companies and 12 industries), researchers verified that interruptions can result in annual costs of 58.5 billion euros. This value may even be bigger for some major companies in the US.

Ultimately, constantly having to refocus our time, costs your company money.

57% of people are not certain all departments use the same online apps

It is common for each department to choose to work with a particular application that facilitates their work. The problem begins when people need to share knowledge throughout the company and there is not a centralised knowledge base to do so.

According to Qatalog’s study57% of people report that they are not certain all departments use the same online apps. 

This uncertainty can create extra friction when teams of multiple departments need to collaborate on a particular project. For instance, as Qatalog points out, the branding team may use a project management app to do their work, the content team may resort to an online wiki, and the sales department may track everything in a CRM.

They also found that 62% of people say it can be hard to figure out what others are working on.

This data suggests that it is best for your teams to collaborate using the same online platforms, as it saves time and promotes transparency across departments.

People want tools that make their work effortless or, at least, that do not add extra friction to developing tasks. It is really common for employees to end up doing things in a way that is easier for them, instead of following the directions of their managers.

Thus, Qatalog’s research confirmed that 63% of people report that they do not always use the recommended tools. This can happen either because the software used is not intuitive enough or because the process itself is perceived as time-consuming.

55% of people indicated that they find it time-consuming to get information from another department when they rely on apps they are not familiar with. Plus, people even reported that 21% of the mistakes they make are the result of difficulties accessing information on their company’s online tools.

This means your team may be unintentionally jeopardising each other's productivity just because they find it hard to access critical information.

Workers switch between different apps and websites nearly 1,200 times each day

With companies resorting to more and more apps to get work done, employees are constantly shifting contexts. This is draining and costly, both for the individual and the company.

A study developed by Harvard Business Review (2022) - where researchers followed 20 teams from 3 Fortune 500 companies for five weeks - reported that workers switch between different apps and websites nearly 1,200 times per day. This adds up to 5 working weeks or 9% of their annual time at work

Plus according to Qatalog, it takes on average 9 and a half minutes on average to get back into a good workflow once they’ve switched between apps.

The more apps you use, the more chaotic and cluttered the workspace becomes. Qatalog’s study verified that 6 in 10 people say it is difficult to keep track of information flowing across various applications.

If on top of the usual websites your team needs to dive in to do their work, they also need to switch between different company platforms to keep updated, you are draining your team’s energy. And that is costly as great results are harder to achieve.

49% of workers are concerned that the information they post will get lost in a sea of updates

If you communicate with your team through multiple apps and do the work using other platforms, it is easy for misunderstandings to happen, information to get lost or important messages to be forgotten.

Qatalog’s report states that 49% of people are concerned that the information they post to their company’s online apps and communications channels will get lost in a sea of updates. And those same people are not always certain the information and updates they share are reaching their intended audience.

As a result, 53% of people admit to making updates even when they are not fully necessary, just to cover their bases. This ends up being counterproductive as they are using valuable time to make those updates and are contributing to a never-ending cycle of cluttered spaces and ineffective communications. People end up contributing more to the problem than creating a valuable solution.

It is then crucial that you manage to have communication and work on the same platform or create a guideline to avoid irrelevant updates or important information getting lost.

People have to deal on average with 63.5 notifications on average per day, mostly from messengers and email

Whether it is on our smartphones or laptops, we are used to the frequent buzz of notifications – be it from work matters or personal use apps.

A few years ago, a study with 15 mobile phone users concluded that on average people had to deal with 63.5 notifications per day. Today, as most of our workspaces have migrated to the digital world, we suspect this number is considerably higher.

What is interesting (and worrying) is that the researchers also verified that even when notifications were on silent mode, people viewed them within minutes. This is a red flag when their goal is to be productive. 

A recent survey from Screen Education with 1,019 US employees even concluded that people are checking their phones frequently and are spending an average of 2.5 hours each day viewing content that is not related to their jobs.

There is a lack of control regarding impulse of checking multiple platforms to stay up-to-date or entertained. As a leader, you need to be a support for your team in their journey towards deep and focused work.

45% of people say context switching makes them less productive

Having to constantly switch between multiple apps and types of content affects our cognitive function. Our brains are not wired to effectively multitask. It is a corporate myth the idea that we are productive when we focus on different things in a short amount of time.

In Qatalog’s report, 45% of people say context switching makes them less productive and 43% say it is tiring to switch between tools and communications channels all the time.

In a sentence, context switching is causing a lack of cognitive function in your team.

2 out of 3 people said they struggled to fully focus on a single task or person

Distractions are affecting our brains. Thus, they create challenges not only in onsite jobs but also for remote workers.

In Crucial Learning’s study, researchers concluded that 68% of people reported finding it harder to focus at work and 62% have a hard time focusing at home.

Your team is probably struggling with distractions. The calmer their work environment, the easier it may be for them to relearn how to focus for extended periods.

Employees spend about 1.5 days in meetings, of which an average of 35% is irrelevant

Adding to the quick interruptions from notifications, meetings negatively contribute to unproductivity in the workplace.

We are meeting more than ever before, yet people feel most meetings are a waste of time.

In a study developed with data from German companies, researchers verified that on average employees spend about 1.5 days of their 40-hour week attending meetings – and 35% of these meetings are irrelevant.

These findings show that it is more beneficial for your team to only participate in relevant and pressing meetings. Make sure everyone knows how they can contribute to that meeting as this creates a better sense of urgency and also gives them the option of opting out if they feel they do not have valuable insights to add to the discussion.


Interruptions are killing productive work. 

From unintuitive software and having your work scattered across multiple apps, to being bombarded by notifications and messages/phone calls, we are losing valuable hours of work and having to put more effort into obtaining the same result we would if processes were different.

We need a different solution. One that creates calm instead of chaos, and allows for deep work to smoothly happen. To tackle this issue we created Workjoy.

Make your team love mondays!

Get a demo or try for free today.