Researcher: Multitasking makes people sick

Multitasking, i.e. doing several tasks at the same time, characterizes today's day-to-day work. However, studies show that this affects not only the quality of work, but also health.

The report “Multitasking and Effects on Error Processing - Psychophysiological Examination for the Analysis of Information Processing Processes” by the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) came to the conclusion that multitasking harms the work process as well as the health of the workers.

People who are supposed to work on several tasks at the same time make more mistakes, and these mistakes are more serious the more complex the respective tasks are.

The brain - a computer?
The term multitasking does not come from psychology, but from computer technology. It describes hardware in which various processes are activated at such short intervals that the impression of simultaneity arises. But is the human brain a computer and can it work exactly like this?

A key qualification
Multitasking is now considered a key skill, and companies train their employees to learn it. Multitasking appears to be the central skill, particularly in the increasingly important areas of communication and information technology such as online media.

Main source of error
According to a BAuA study, this “central ability” is the main source of error in companies. The Federal Institute researched whether the brain can process two processes that require both concentration at the same time, and if so, if this is an advantage.

The study
The BAuA examined error detection and processing processes in multitasking.
The result is sobering: Instead of working on two processes at the same time, we interrupt the respective thought process. After each of these disorders, it takes us an average of 15 to 20 minutes to fully concentrate on one task.

Employees who are constantly tasked with multitasking feel chronically overwhelmed and are also objective. They suffer from stress and are at risk of burnout, and in the end it is not uncommon for a depressive illness to arise.

The psychological damage to people who are constantly under multitasking constraints is only one side of the coin. Overload is not just the price you pay for efficient work - on the contrary. The quality of the work is rapidly declining. If you have to do several demanding tasks at the same time, you don't do more, you do less.

The brain works differently
Now exposing employees to additional pressure according to the motto "they would not be suitable for the job" is twisting the biological possibilities. A study by the University of Linköping in Sweden showed that the brain always focuses on the task that it sees as a priority.

The illusion of efficient multitasking
In concrete terms, this means that if I have to explain a new project to my boss and at the same time have to answer professional emails, I concentrate on one or the other.

Multitasking or elegant ignorance?
The ability to multitask turns out to be one-ear listening when you analyze it carefully: The worried customer may be reassured when we develop a Power Point lecture and appease him on the phone at the same time without listening to what he is saying - the problem But what the customer is about does not change because we do not focus on what it is about.

The Swedish study found that the most effective method is to work through complex tasks one after the other.

Bulemia learning
Students who carry out their duties in the bachelor's and master's degree programs and who are exposed to far more extensive restrictions than in the previous master's degree complain about “learning bulemia”.

They describe so vividly that they only consume “knowledge” to choke it up during exams and then forget it. In the end, they have a good number of credit points on various topics, but have not worked on any of them in depth, let alone understood them.

The same applies in school. Permanent multitasking leads to more headaches in students.

Where does multitasking work?
However, psychologists are convinced that there are people who are capable of multitasking and others who cannot. In particular, women are more talented for multitasking than men. But that's not correct. Rather, multitasking means: equal stress for men and women
However, it is important to observe exactly what multitasking means in the respective context: It is not important for the brain whether different tasks belong together objectively, but whether it can build actionable patterns.

A German engineer, for example, who is building a project in the United States, could probably switch from his online course in Business English to calculate a building structure on site without major problems - because the language serves this work. In an online course on art history, he would have to interrupt a thought process.

Distribute clear tasks
The amount of information in the digital age cannot be changed, but the organization in companies can deal with it. This includes having employees perform clear tasks and knowing what other people are doing.

Technocratic illusion
It is no coincidence that multitasking comes from computer technology. Transferring it to people results from a technocratic view of man in which employees function like machines - today like computers. However, the human brain is not hardware in which different processes can run in a very short time at the push of a button: the synapses pass on messenger substances with information, and if these lines are interrupted, they have to form again.

Limit interference
Multitasking makes you sick and worsens the quality of work. Inquiries via email and calls as well as unscheduled tasks cannot always be avoided, but should be seen as what they are neuropsychological: disorders that get the brain out of rhythm. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

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