HR · 11 January 2016

Workers make twice as many mistakes when multi-tasking

Multi-tasking increases the chance of employee error by 50 per cent, research has found.

Multi-tasking at work actively reduces employee productivity and increases the chance of error, with the constant flow of email and social media messages cited as a key reason for workers feeling unable to cope, new research has found.

Workers are likely to make 50 per cent more errors as a result of changing to working practices that increasingly require more than one task to be performed at any one time, the study by office-space solutions firm Steelcase has shown.

Workers have reported increased levels of anxiety, feelings of guilt and an inability to cope with fluctuating work loads, as the pressure to juggle priorities and workplace responsibilities builds year-on-year.

Commenting on the research, psychologist and Steelcase senior researcher Beatriz Arantes said that everybody experiences an element of stress, but that companies need to become better at understanding how people cope.

“Everybody recognises that feeling of paralysis when the in-tray is overflowing and emails are coming in thick and fast,” she said. “However, trying to deal with several problems at the same time is not an effective working strategy, leading to slower completion, increased error, and a dissatisfying feeling of being behind.”

The research revealed that workers take twice as long on average to complete a task when distracted by another. Arantes advised that firms should encourage employees to prioritise.

“Businesses can increase employee wellbeing and productivity if they understand how the brain works, help workers to prioritise workloads, and give each task the attention it needs rather than engage in multi-tasking,” she said.

Multi-tasking results in British employers missing out on one billion working days’ worth of productivity a year, according to Ranstad in a study published in October last year. With employees being interrupted six times a day on average, it demonstrated that multi-tasking led to 120 minutes of lost work per day (or ten hours each week) per UK worker.

Out of over 2,000 UK employees polled, 45 per cent said they have to deal with more mult-tasking in their working lives than two or three years previously, whilst just 16 per cent said they are now required to balance a smaller workload.

Arantes urged firms to be more mindful when tackling the issue of productivity. “Working well means working with our brain,” she said.

“Stress at work is one of the largest occupational hazards of the 21st century. By understanding common mistakes, workers will be able to work more effectively, and will be able to dedicate the degree of attention that each task deserves,” she added.

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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