The Relationship of Distraction, Resilience and Engagement

Sheryl knew she had a problem. As a senior partner at one of America’s leading law firms, she was charged with managing the associate class of attorneys. The problem wasn’t recruiting top talent, nor was it training the associates to become elite level attorneys. The problem was making sure they didn’t burnout, become disengaged, leave the firm or, worse, take their own life.

The problem Sheryl faced is one of those cultural problems that is buried deep in the zeitgeist of modern business. It’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but nobody wants to talk about.

The fact is that, now more than ever, our employees struggle to stay engaged in their work and to avoid burning out. Of course, employee engagement has always been a central focus for executives. And yet there’s something new, something unprecedented, that has shifted this issue from being merely important to essential.

The shift has to do with a simple cultural fact: We now live in a time of unprecedented information overload and distraction. We live in a state the psychologist Linda Stone has famously described as “continuous partial attention.” At home, at work, at the airport, at our kid’s soccer game, and just about everywhere else, we’re rarely fully present and engaged in the task at hand.

Impact of distractions

On an anecdotal level, we all know this. But consider just a few findings out of the emerging research on employee distraction:

Multitasking – attending to multiple streams of information at the same time – diminishes cognitive performance. In a study conducted last year at Stanford University, researchers found that “heavy” multitasking appears correlated to diminished working memory and sustained attention.

Interruptions keep us from concentrating on important tasks. Research conducted by Microsoft and workplace expert Gloria Mark of UC Irvine shows that after each interruption, it takes around 23 minutes to refocus on the task at hand. Perhaps this explains part of the reason why Gallup reported that 51% of US employees are not engaged.

We’re addicted to digital distraction. The problem isn’t just that digital distractions diminish cognitive performance and productivity. The real problem is that we’re addicted to these productivity-draining behaviors. As Adam Alter recounts in Irresistible, many of us have developed a “behavioral addiction” to our devices. Each time we open our inbox or text stream, we encounter something new – a new list of messages or a new feed of updates. This triggers a small burst of dopamine in various brain regions. At the level of neurobiology, it’s the same as the gambler pulling the lever on a slot machine, wondering what will happen next.

Disengagement is costly

In the midst of this crisis of distraction, we are also witnessing a parallel, and perhaps related trend, toward increasing levels of workplace disengagement. Consider just a few findings from research on employee engagement.

  • A UK study found companies with low engagement scores earn an operating income 32.7% lower than companies with more engaged employees. Similarly, companies with a highly engaged workforce experience a 19.2% growth.
  • Research by the Corporate Leadership Council that increasing engagement levels leads to a 57% improvement in employee discretionary effort, which can then lead to a 20% improvement in overall performance.
  • Gallup reports that business units in the top quartile of its engagement surveys experience 65% less turnover. That can represent a considerable savings, considering the high cost of replacing workers.

The point here is that we are living in a time when cultivating employee engagement is more important than ever. The rise of informational distraction has amplified both the challenge of staying engaged at work as well as the costs of disengagement.

The ROI of resilience training

At its core, this crisis of distraction is an internal challenge – a challenge that can only be effectively addressed by giving our employees the tools to shift to a new, more productive, mindset of resilience. Resilience, after all, is our ability to stay centered, present, and focused in the midst of the inevitable experience of stress, uncertainty, and distraction. It’s the muscle we must develop to stay engaged in the midst of information overload.

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A growing body of research illuminates the profound benefits of having resilient employees. Consider just a few of the benefits identified by the American Heart Association’s CEO Roundtable:

  • Increased threshold for workplace stress – Employees with higher levels of resilience have a greater capacity to cope with workplace stressors, while also developing protective factors against the negative effects of stress.
  • Enhanced mental & emotional fitness – Resilient employees are less likely to succumb to the myriad mental and emotional health concerns that arise from workplace stress. These conditions include disengagement, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
  • Increased engagement, job satisfaction, and purpose – Resilience not only provides a buffer against the negative effects of stress. The research indicates that it also promotes higher levels of engagement and work happiness. In addition, resilience is correlated with higher levels of self-esteem, a greater sense of control over life events, and an elevated sense of meaning and purpose.

Training resilience

There’s still one essential practical question: What is the best way to bring resilience into the workplace? In the research on resilience and mindfulness solutions as well as our first-hand experience working with thousands of employees, we have identified three primary strategies:

Habit formation: The biggest mistake many companies make is thinking changes can happen overnight with a single, one-off solution. We’ve all experienced this problem first hand. You go to an amazing off-site or workshop and you feel inspired to make changes in your life. But in the absence of ongoing support and accountability, after a week or so, you go right back to your default habits. What we know from the emerging science in this area is that habits don’t change overnight. It requires daily engagement and accountability to shift the deeply rooted patterns that are the cause of our addiction to distraction. As a result, we have found that the most effective solutions will include accountability over time, habits that are easy to develop, and some form of human support.

Time efficiency: Extreme time scarcity is an inescapable part of modern work. Given these constraints, effective resilience solutions must find a way to maximize benefit while minimizing time commitment. Asking your employees to attend a week-long retreat or meditate for long periods of time is a non-starter in the modern world of business. Instead, it’s far more effective to focus on habit-forming strategies that build the practice of engagement and flow into the midst of everyday life.

Create company-wide rituals: Overcoming the current culture of distraction requires a cultural solution. Building company-wide rituals that promote focus and flow, in other words, is the key to creating lasting change across an entire organization. Consider, for instance, one powerful company-wide ritual. It’s what we call The Arrival. It’s a 60-second pause at the beginning of a meeting that gives people the opportunity to do whatever they need to do to be fully present: take a few breaths, send that last text, or get up and stretch. This powerful ritual offers cultural reinforcement for cutting through the clouds of distraction and engaging fully in the task at hand.

There is no single solution to the current crisis of workplace distraction. The research, however, indicates that the best remedy is to invest a modest amount in benefits-driven, time-efficient, mindfulness-based resilience solutions. By giving employees the tools to more skillfully navigate this crisis of distraction, we increase their likelihood of promoting the company brand. We increase their sense of commitment. And we help them find a greater sense of meaning and achievement in their work.

Just imagine the possibilities of shifting from the now ubiquitous workplace culture of distraction to a culture of deep focus and full engagement. Imagine the competitive advantage your company would gain. Imagine how it could transform the experience of work. Imagine how it could propel growth and innovation. That’s the promise of bringing resilience training into the workplace.

Anjani Bhargava serves as the chief talent and organization development officer at Abundant Venture Partners. She is also the CEO of DLB Growth Strategies, a firm that helps organizations drive performance, lead culture and build talent. She is also a board member for Life Cross Training. She holds a B.A. from the University of California, Riverside, and completed her graduate training in Organizational Psychology at Northern Illinois University

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