Recover Overnight? Work Interruption and Worker Productivity

The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions

                                                                                                            ― Martin Luther King Jr.


Interruptions are common in the workplace. From equipment breakdowns to unscheduled meetings and communication requests, unplanned breaks from a smooth and continuous production often trigger losses in work hours and reductions in productivity. Nowadays, with firms adopting modern organizational and communication technologies such as open-plan offices, e-mail, and instant messaging, managing interruptions has become increasingly important and challenging for businesses and their workers.

The direct costs of unnecessary interruptions have been estimated at an average of 28% of daily time for knowledge workers in the U.S. Moreover, interruptions may have spillover effects on subsequent production, leading to further cost on firms. For instance, workers may struggle to regain full engagement either because they need extra time to warm up, or due to the stress and frustration about failing to meet targets. Despite its importance, the consequence of work interruption remains largely unexplored.

In “Recover Overnight? Work Interruption and Worker Productivity,” by Xiqian Cai, Jie Gong, Yi Lu and Songfa Zhong, the authors examine the consequence of work interruptions, in particular how workers’ subsequent productivity is affected by unexpected machine breakdown. They collect a data set of worker-level daily output and machine conditions from a manufacturing company, in which workers are assigned to different machines on a daily basis and face, on average, 14% chance that their machine breaks down. It is shown that, the incidence of machine breakdown leads to a 3.3 percentage point decline in the worker’s productivity on the following day. This decline can be translated to a drop in a worker’s daily income by 5.28%, and more than 334,000 RMB drop in the firm’s annual output.

The authors further articulate that the most plausible reason is a negative emotional response to the interruptions. More specifically, machine breakdown causes direct losses in working hours and payment, and workers may feel stressed and frustrated about failing to earn as expected. The paper also shows that the probability of absence from work increases after a machine breakdown episode. Perhaps more interestingly, the productivity decline is smaller when more peers also experience the interruption the same day.

A takeaway from the study is the hidden cost of work interruption: The cost is not limited to the direct hours and productivity lost to interruption, but may also spill over to subsequent production and can persist for days. This hidden cost should be accounted for when firms decide how to manage interruptions, including equipment maintenance and standby arrangement, as well as how to minimize interruptions especially those caused by communication devices and social media in the digital age.

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Cai X, Gong J, Lu Y, Zhong S (2018) Recover Overnight? Work Interruption and Worker Productivity. Management Science 64(8):3489–3500.