Interruptions in work increase the release of stress hormones.


A large proportion of employees experience work-related stress. When chronic, this stress can lead to fatigue, which is detrimental to public health and has major economic costs. In order to prevent these states of exhaustion, an interdisciplinary team at the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich is working on an interdisciplinary digital early warning system that is designed to detect stress in real time in everyday office life using machine learning methods.

More work, new tasks, restructuring, digital change, pressure from superiors or colleagues – the working world is full of stress factors that can also have an impact on health. But it is not only the work itself that stresses employees. The body also releases more stress hormones when work is repeatedly interrupted.

Constantly increasing pressure at work means that many people are often stressed. And stress endangers health, as numerous scientific studies have shown. However, it is not only the job that causes stress, but also interruptions to work. This is what researchers from Switzerland now report.

Interruptions to work lead to stress

“To this end, we wanted to find out in a first step how to measure the effects of social pressure and work interruptions – two of the most frequent stress factors in the workplace,” explains psychologist Jasmine Kerr in a recent communication. The scientist is driving the project forward together with mathematician Mara Nägelin and computer scientist Raphael Weibel.

The researchers are now reporting on their recently completed study in the journal “Psychoneuroendocrinology”. They have recruited 90 participants via a university platform who have agreed to take part in an experiment lasting almost two hours. For the experiment, the scientists transformed the Decision Science Laboratory of ETH Zurich into three open-plan offices. At each workstation there was a chair, a computer with a screen – as well as the accessories for taking saliva samples.

At a total of six points in time, the study participants answered questionnaires to determine how good or bad their mood was at the time, and a mobile ECG device measured their heartbeat continuously. And in their saliva, the scientists determined the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol.

Stress factors at work

While the participants – as employees of an imaginary insurance company – did typical office work, such as typing up handwritten forms or arranging appointments between insurance consultants and their customers, the researchers were interested in their psychobiological reactions.

According to the information provided, the two stress groups differed in that the participants in the first stress group only put their work aside for saliva sampling. However, participants in the second stress group had to accept additional interruptions in their work when they received chat messages from their superiors requesting urgent information.

For their experiment, the research team divided the participants into three groups that were exposed to different levels of stress. All groups had the same work to do. In the middle of the experiment, all participants were visited by two actors who were employees of the human resources department of the insurance company. While the participants in the control group read a sales dialogue, the actors in the two stress groups pretended to look for the most suitable candidates for promotion among the participants.

It turned out that even a competition for a fictitious promotion was enough to raise the heart rate and release the stress hormone cortisol. “However, the participants in the second stress group released almost twice as much cortisol as those in the first group,” explains Mara Nägelin.

The scientists suspect that the additional work interruptions caused by the cortisol release mobilized more physical resources and that emotional and cognitive stress management was supported by this. It is also possible that the work interruptions distracted the participants from the upcoming social stress situation, making them feel less threatened and therefore less stressed. (ad)

The team was surprised by the subjectively perceived psychological stress. The researchers found that the participants in the second stress group with chat interruptions considered themselves to be calmer and in a better mood than those in the first stress group without chat interruptions. Interestingly, they rated the situation as equally challenging but less threatening than the first stress group.

“Up to now, work interruptions have usually only been researched in terms of their effects on work performance and productivity. With our study, we are showing for the first time that they also have an effect on the amount of cortisol released – and thus actually also on the biological stress response,” adds Raphael Weibel.

WashingtonNewsday Health and Wellness.


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