Minor adjustments may decrease workplace disturbances


Q. I have a job that demands a high level of concentration. I am interrupted constantly by someone who wants to talk or has a problem. I am increasingly rude to co-workers, and my job performance is suffering. We are not allowed to close our doors at work. Do you have some suggestions for dealing with this issue?

A. As companies downsize, almost everyone is working more and tempers often flare. Few things disturb concentration more than having an uninvited co-worker pop in for restaurant suggestions or to complain about his or her latest romantic debacle.

Several studies, reported in The Wall Street Journal, concluded that when workers were disturbed by even a brief interruption, they were more likely to make mistakes upon returning to their task. The studies estimated that it takes an average of 25 minutes to mentally return to a project after a disturbance. It takes another 15 minutes to regain the intensity that one had before the interruption.

Although people believe that in-person contact is more effective, research indicates that e-mails and phone calls are less disturbing and just as productive. One can choose to ignore an e-mail or a phone call, but not someone standing in the doorway or someone who plops down in a chair to discuss weekend plans.

Research has shown that employees who are interrupted most often have a 9 percent higher rate of exhaustion and a 4 percent increase in physical complaints. It’s no wonder that you feel irritable if you are interrupted so often that you find it difficult to complete your work effectively.

There are changes you can make to create fewer disturbances. First, ask the person standing in your doorway if you can talk later. If that is impossible, make quick notes about your next step in the project before you begin the conversation. According to research, this can get you back on task 80 percent faster. Third, inform your co-workers that you are working on an important project and to disturb you only if necessary. If nothing else works, place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the wall outside your door.

Try these techniques. If they do not work, schedule an appointment with a mental health professional. Your anger could be about more than interruptions in the workplace.

Q. I think I’m being bullied at work, but I really lack confidence, so I’m unsure. What are some of the signs of bullying? I’m concerned that I may just be overly sensitive.

A. Workplace bullying is defined as a “systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, and the job you once loved.” According to The Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of the American workforce report that they have been bullied. This is a total of over 53 million people.

There are several interpersonal indicators that should alert you to the possibility that you are experiencing workplace bullying. Some of these are:

• Feeling physically ill the night before you begin the work week (the Sunday Night Syndrome).

• Obsessing or complaining about your treatment at work to friends or family.

• Experiencing more health-related problems, especially an increase in blood pressure.

• Feeling exhausted even after you have rested.

• Taking an increasing numbers of “mental health” days

There are also several workplace indicators to determine if you are being bullied. Some of these are:

• Being criticized for work for which you were given limited instructions.

• Feeling humiliated in meetings for something that is out of your control.

• Experiencing increased anxiety about your job performance

• Having interference from supervisors or others when attempting to do your job.

• Being accused of incompetence, usually by someone who is incompetent.

Workplace bullying is a serious issue. Before you decide how to approach the problem, check out the resources at the Workplace Bullying Institute’s website.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to drnryburn@gmail.com. They will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.