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Mindfulness and Interruptions

In: People

Submitted By bernardpyw
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Office workers make up almost half of the world's working population—that is equivalent to about several hundred millions of people, sitting at desks and staring at computer screens five to six days a week. A 2006 study (Sage Software Survey, Priority 2/2007) of 2,500 white-collared American workers estimated that 80% of the employees worked between 40 to 79 hours each week. Interestingly, there is a good deal of statistics that prove that long office hours hold countless interruptions ever so often.

Houston Chronicle, February 26, 2006 Issue, published that “people switch activities, such as making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle or working on a document, every three minutes on average” (Key Organization Systems, 2007). Heavy workload, lack of autonomy, low interpersonal support, under-utilization of skills, lack of control over work, wage scales and repetitive work environment have been cited as major contributors to workplace stress (Citation). Coincidentally, a 2006 Harvard Business Review Case ranked work-related stress as the second biggest occupational health problem in the world (Key Organization Systems, 2007).

Taking another step forward, we are curious as to how musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), the leading global occupational health problem that begets physical stress, is linked to work-related psychological stress. Canada’s Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA) has churned out statistics that MSDs caused over 40,000 workplace injuries in Ontario annually. In a bid to enhance ergonomic awareness and minimize MSDs in the workplace, IAPA exposed five common myths regarding MSDs in a 2009 article (refer to A2.0) (Industrial Accident Prevention Association, 2009).

With the intent of maintaining all relevance to present research being conducted, we desire to apply employee mindfulness—a topic of organizational behavior that is gaining esteem in the minds of researchers—to interruptions and ergonomics respectively, and see how it moderates the relationship culminating at workplace stress.

2.1 Relationship Between Ergonomics in the Work Place and Physical Stress
Ergonomics is a scientific discipline that seeks to understand and improve human interactions with products, equipment, environments, and systems (Taylor, & Francis, 2010). It involves cultivating the right techniques to protect the health, safety, and well-being of the individuals involved.

Musculoskeletal injuries are the result of poor use of office equipment (Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, 2002). They cause discomfort, fatigue and strain in individuals and this have contributed to the level of physical stress faced by employees (Allie, 1994; Pergola & Smith, 2009). The knowledge of ergonomics has been identified as a factor that plays a large role in reducing musculoskeletal injuries at the workplace (Kind, 2008; Allie, 1994). Organizations have sought ways to effectively customize employees’ work stations via implemented ergonomics training programs to reduce muscle strains and ameliorate the level of physical stress faced by employees while simultaneously enhancing group work, communication, and performance (Allie, 1994; Huang, Robertson & Chang, 2004).

A research study conducted by Ketola et al. (2002) explored the participation in ergonomics training program on musculoskeletal discomfort and strain and the effectiveness of the knowledge. Results showed that, in the long run, intervention in work places with new knowledge of adjustments to furniture, computer screen, keyboard, and mouse has helped to reduce musculoskeletal strains. Likewise, several other studies (refer to A3.0) have proved similar results (Aaras, Horgen, Bjorset, Ro & Walsoe, 2001; Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, 2002). These findings suggest that a worker’s unawareness about the ergonomics of his working environment may lead to physical exhaustion and increased psychological stress.

2.2 Relationship Between Interruptions During Work and Psychological Stress
Interruption refers to any disruptive event(s) that impedes an individual's progress toward accomplishing his/her own organizational duties (Jett & George, 2003). At work, interruptions occur on a daily basis and are often inevitable. Office workers are being interrupted several times a day, through phone calls, colleagues approaching to clarify doubts (Krediet, Zijlstra & Roe, 1994), or even carrying out menial tasks, such as photocopying materials for the boss.

Such disruptive events often have distressing consequences on employees, and, more often than not, result in an increased level of psychological stress faced by employees (Boucsein, 1987; Johansson & Aronsson, 1984; Kirmeyer, 1988). Two main reasons have been attributed to the causal effect between interruptions and stress. Firstly, interruptions place an additional demand on an employee's job (Zijlstra et al., 1999), and secondly, interruptions are often 'unpredictable and uncontrollable' (Cohen, 1980). Studies verified that an individual’s ability to control his own work environment is a psychological tool by itself, sufficient to reduce psychological stress levels (Carton & Aiello, 2009).

Mindfulness is broad term derived from “Eastern philosophy and Western psychology” (Fries, 2009, p.2), usually associated with the teachings of Buddhism. Mindfulness is namely associated with mediation and the Buddhist concept of Vipassana, a meditation technique that “enlarges and refines the consciousness.” Vipassana results in greater self-understanding and self-mastery (Borden & Shekhawat, 2010, p.142).
In recent years, especially in the current challenging economic situation, mindfulness-based programs to reduce employee stress have become a key part of organizations' welfare programs. Academics, such as Mason Fries, urges managers to focus on “how the mind and our thoughts contribute to discomfort and stress” (Fries, 2009, p.2). One may consider such practices exceedingly costly, compared to the value it delivers, if any. However, according to Borden and Shekhawat (2010, p. 142), these practices yield “quick rewards”, namely in “emotional serenity.”

Some researchers such as Baer, Smith, and Toney link mindfulness with the awareness of one’s body and feelings, for instance: noticing changes in one's breathing rhythm, or paying attention on details such as the wind or sun on one's skin (Fries, 2009, p.6). Hence, we can infer that mindfulness cultivates an employee’s awareness to his or her posture, and the whole concept is tightly linked with ergonomics. This heightened awareness of the right posture may convert into practices of proper sitting, and thus resolve the discomfort from musculoskeletal injuries and pains that cause the physical stress experienced by many employees who undergo prolonged sitting throughout the day.

Conversely, we can reasonably argue that a “high-resilient” (Avey, Wernsing & Luthans, 2008) and mindful employee is better-equipped to deal with changes brought about by intrusive tasks due to the ability to concentrate on the present task, rather than suffer from stress due to scattered attention. As a result, we may infer that mindfulness has a high chance to be an intrinsic asset (trait) born of an even-tempered worker or to be trained as a behavior.

There is little to no research done whatsoever on the links between (1) interruptions, stress, and mindfulness, and (2) ergonomics, stress, and mindfulness. The research team decided that this gap in research is be a cutting-edge issue to address with respect to the study of organizational behavior since it comes with directly useful implications for organizations and people alike. Thus, two hypotheses, (refer to A4.0) which include the mindfulness of employees as both a trait and a behavior, were formed.

4.1 Independent and Dependent Variables
The independent variable for the first hypothesis is the volume of interruptions in the form of menial tasks (for e.g., photocopying a document /tending to a telephone call) and that of the second hypothesis is the extent to which an office is equipped with ergonomic furniture respectively. The dependant variables for both relationships are psychological stress in a positive relationship with the independent variable for the first hypothesis, and psychological and physical stress which are negatively related to the independent variable for the second.

4.2 Moderating Variables
The moderating variable in both hypotheses is mindfulness, functioning as both a behavior and trait. For the first hypothesis, if an employee who is exposed to many menial tasks, is sent for a mindfulness-based-stress-reduction-program, he can control his reactions to the negative stress coming from the interruptions and thus experiences a much smaller jump in stress levels. Thus, mindfulness is believed to weaken the relationship between interruptions and stress such that an increase in interruptions will give rise to a smaller increase in physical stress. For the second relationship, if an employee in an office with ergonomic furniture is sent for mindfulness training either before or after he is sent for an ergonomics training program, he will place more importance on the information learnt on how to use the ergonomic furniture. Thus, being more aware of how sitting with proper posture or adjusting the ergonomic furniture will help reduce physical stress, he will practice good office desk habits. As a result, he will enjoy a more substantial reduction in the employee’s physical stress. This indicates that mindfulness strengthens the relationship of our second hypothesis.

It is evident that, in both scenarios, a more mindful employee would enjoy a physically and emotionally more healthy working environment as compared to a less mindful employee in the same environment.

Two experiments involving recruited office workers will be conducted in a simulated office environment to test the two hypotheses. The participants will be tasked to perform data entry and filing in replication of typical office job duties and their pre-experiment and post-experiment stress levels will be recorded.

5.1 Method of Measurement
In total, there are four variables in both experiments: Ergonomics knowledge, psychological stress, physical stress, and mindfulness. Since having ergonomics knowledge is assumed after participants have undergone an ergonomics training program, the team will only measure the latter three variables.

Occupational stress index (refer to A5.0) and epinephrine urinary tests will be used to measure psychological stress. In addition, epinephrine urinary tests give priceless credibility to the results as it is the most reliable neuroendocrine index of stress (Baum & Grunberg, 1995). Physical stress will be measured through the musculoskeletal pain test (refer to A6.0) and the number of medical leaves and appointments. The Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (refer to A7.0) will be used to measure mindfulness. Regression analysis will be used to measure the relationships between the independent variables (interruptions, ergonomics knowledge, and mindfulness) and the dependent variables (physical and physiological stress). To measure the difference between the pre-experiment and post-experiment stress scores, paired sample t-tests will be utilized.
5.2 Design of Experiments
5.2.1 Experiment Testing Interruptions, Stress, and Mindfulness
Fifty participants will be selected and segregated into two groups: mindful and less mindful. Each research day comprises two experimental sessions; the first session will allow an uninterrupted flow of activity and, therefore, serves as a point of reference. The second session comprises of six interruptions occurring at 20 minute intervals. Physiological test scores will be measured using Occupational Stress Index and Epinephrine Urinary Tests before and after each session for analysis.

5.2.2 Experiment Testing Ergonomic Furniture, Stress, and Mindfulness
Fifty participants will be selected and segregated according to mindfulness levels. Participants will be sent for a two-week long ergonomics training course. Since the result of the ergonomics training on physical stress levels does not come speedily, surveys to measure the participant’s individual stress will be conducted every month for a year for the purpose of analysis and the number of medical leaves and appointments will be recorded throughout. At the end of one year, the team will observe the number of medical leaves and appointments taken by the sample group to see if their hypothesis stands true.

To further prove that mindfulness serves as a moderating variable between interruptions to stress and ergonomics knowledge to stress, the group of less mindful participants for both experiments will be sent to a 2 week mindfulness training after the second session of both experiments. Assuming that our hypothesis is true, stress level will be expected to reduce after the mindfulness training.

If the hypotheses stand true, we can explore areas of improvement, which many organizations have been neglecting in their quest to reduce stress and tension in order to improve efficiency among employees. The two areas of improvement come in the form of enforced mindfulness followed by enhanced ergonomics at the workplace.

As shown in the methodology, employees who exercise mindfulness at the workplace should experience a relatively lower level of emotional stress. Our methodology also shows that ergonomics training and mindfulness training will go hand in hand to help reduce both physical and emotional stress caused by improper usage of office furniture or incorrect postures.

If accurate, this study will prove to be extremely relevant in the current working culture around the world. In the current fast-paced working environment, people often have to handle impromptu tasks. The inculcation of mindfulness will be able to aid individuals cope with such situations better without compromising the standards of their original task at hand. Additionally, in the current working culture, people often spend long hours at their workstation. Therefore, this study proves the need to inculcate a considerable sense of mindfulness and purposeful ergonomics amongst employees in order to maximize the output of employees for the duration they spend at their workstation.

Therefore, organizations should now also provide a supportive environment such as time slots to allow employees to meditate and reflect during their long working hours. Companies should also allocate budget to send employees for mindfulness and ergonomics training, which can help to reap long-term profits when employees become more on task during work and turn to greater efficiency for the company.

In conclusion, as more and more organizations send their staff for upgrading courses in terms of technical skills, many have neglected the importance of establishing a certain standard of mindfulness and ergonomics amongst employees. This proves to be paramount before employees can perform to their fullest potential under a less stressful environment. This study seeks to show organizations the value of mindfulness and ergonomics training to help improve the work culture of an organization in the long run.…...

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