A new study confirms it: In safety-critical situations, short distractions make mistakes much more likely.
Interruptions of just 2.8 seconds long double the likelihood that an employee will make an error, according to the Michigan State University study.
Increase the length of the distraction to 4.4 seconds, and the number of mistakes triples.
When an employee is momentarily disrupted and then returns to their task, there is an increased chance of resuming at a different point in their train of thought.
Being taken out of the moment and landing back in a slightly different place may mean even short disruptions can seem jarring to a worker.
In the age of cell and smart phones, this means when a worker receives an alert of a new call or email, they don’t even have to answer the call. The time it takes to silence the phone is enough to disrupt their train of thought.
Lead researcher Erik Altmann points to safety-critical jobs like airplane mechanic or emergency room doctor as occupations that could be seriously impacted by these types of short disruptions.
“What this means is that our health and safety is, on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted,” Altmann said.
Participants in the study had to perform a series of tasks in order. Occasionally, they were told to do something else that took three to five seconds and then return to their original task. Researchers compared the number of errors with and without disruptions.
Managers have been aware of the danger of increasing types of disruptions that workers face. We’ve heard about safety policies that ban workers from carrying cell phones on the job.
In some cases of course, banning cell phones altogether isn’t practical. Each workplace has to decide what policy will work best.
One thing that might help: Tell workers about this study. Remind them that distractions can lead to injuries and in some cases even death.