Workplace interruptions cost US economy $588 bn a year

New York, Jan 9 | Updated: Jan 10 2006, 05:30am hrs
Interruptions consume 2.1 hours a day or 28% of the workday and cost American economy $588 billion a year, a new survey shows.

The survey by Basex, an information technology research firm, found that the time lost for productivity included not only unimportant interruptions and distractions but also recovery time associated with getting back on the task.

The survey, being reported in the upcoming issue of Time Magazine, was based on study of 1,000 office workers.

Estimating an average salary of $21 an hour for knowledge workers, those who perform tasks involving information, Basex calculated that workplace interruptions cost the US economy $588 billion a year.

A team led by Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez of the University of California at Irvine tracked 36 office workers and found that the employees devoted an average of just 11 minutes to a project before the ping of an e-mail, the ring of the phone or a knock on the cubicle pulled them in another direction.

Once they were interrupted, it took, on average, 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they managed to do so at all that day, Time reports. Workers in the study were juggling an average of 12 projects apiece, a situation one subject described as constant, multitasking craziness.

The five biggest causes of interruption in descending order, according to Gloria Mark of the University of California, were: a colleague stopping by, worker being called away from the desk (or leaving voluntarily), arrival of new e-mail, worker doing another task on the computer and a phone call.

Over the past decade, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has seen a tenfold rise in the number of patients with symptoms that closely resemble those of attention-deficit disorder (ADD), but of a work-induced variety.

They complained that they were more irritable than they wanted to be. Their productivity was declining. They couldnt get organised.

Hallowell and his frequent collaborator, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, believe that the neurochemistry of addiction may underlie the compulsive use of cell phones, computers and blackberrys.

Psychologists call the increasingly common addiction to web-based activity online compulsive disorder, Hallowell calls it screen sucking.

Im an obsessive and addicted multitasker and gadget user, Hollywood producer Jennifer Klein, whose credits include Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, tells Time.

Mary Czerwinski, a senior researcher at Microsoft, has been helping Microsoft design alternatives to current software products to allow workers to stay on task for longer periods, even as onscreen interruptions arrive. In next-generation systems, which Microsofts competitors are pursuing as well, interruptions are designed to be less intrusive, nothing flashes, pops up or makes a noise and the alerts appear on the periphery of a screen thats larger than todays standards so that workers stay centered on their main task, Time says.