A woman stressed by technology while working from home

Why interruptions at work could be causing you physical stress

Posted by for Careers

Being interrupted while you’re working doesn’t just get in the way of your productivity – it can also cause you physical stress. But, it can have this surprisingly positive effect on your day.

Have you ever been bombarded with emails at work while you’re trying to get something done? Or felt the pressure of being scrutinised by superiors when you’re busy? Well, it’s no secret that the workday brings with it plenty of pressures and its fair share of stress, and interruptions throughout the day all too often add to that.

However, in addition to perhaps causing you that extra bit of irritation or throwing you off your game, it turns out that interruptions while you’re at your laptop can actually lead to physical stress, too.

In a recent study, researchers from ETH Zurich put a group of 90 participants into an office environment, and monitored their physical responses to different interruptions, alongside asking them to complete a questionnaire in which they rated their mood. 

All participants had to do standard office tasks such as type up reports and arrange appointments with clients, and were given the same workload. However, while some participants were only interrupted to watch a sales pitch, the rest had to deal with the added stress of being visited by HR representatives evaluating them for promotion. Some frequently received urgent chat messages from co-workers and superiors on top of that, too. 

Unsurprisingly, participants who were told they may be up for a promotion were found to have a significantly increased heart rate in response to the added pressure suddenly placed on them. The stress hormone cortisol was also triggered for these people, which is the hormone your body releases to prepare you to deal with difficult, threatening situations.

What may come as a surprise, though, is the fact that this stress response was actually found to have some short-term benefits. You see, while the participants who had to deal with both the promotion and the chat messages had by far the highest levels of cortisol, their mood was better than those who had less to deal with. In fact, although all participants who were evaluated for promotion “rated the situation as equally challenging”, those with more on their plate actually found it “less threatening”. 

Participants who were told they may be up for a promotion were found to have a significantly increased heartrate.
Participants who were told they may be up for a promotion were found to have a significantly increased heartrate.

What this suggests is that, when you’re put under a lot of stress, your body’s physical responses better prepare you to deal with that stress psychologically and emotionally.

However, while in the short-term this could help you feel more equipped to face up to stressful interruptions and other high-pressure situations throughout the workday, there are longer-term implications of stress that are cause for concern. 

For example, since cortisol is triggered in the most stressful situations, it sets off the processes that your body needs when it is in fight-or-flight mode, regardless of whether you are in physical danger. So, even when the threat you are facing comes in the form of constant emails from a superior, your body’s stress response will still work to “curb functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation”, such as immune system responses and digestive processes, as well as increase blood sugar levels, according to Mayo Clinic.

Overexposure to stress can, therefore, “disrupt almost all your body’s processes”, which in the long term can increase your risk of health issues such as anxiety, sleep problems, and memory impairment.

We took a more in-depth look at how stress affects your body, and what you can do about it. If you’re worried about stress at work, it’s definitely worth taking a look at

If working from home is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of communicating via technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including to anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of wellbeing during this strange time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

Images: Getty

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