According to an article in Business Week, workplace distractions are costing $650 billion a year in lost productivity. It’s hard to know exactly how they came up with that dollar amount, but there’s no disputing the issue. It’s harder and harder to stay focused in the workplace. The article is accompanied by a slide show depicting a dozen of the most frequent work distractions. Some involve non-work related matters, such as weather, news, and socialization, but even so-called productivity enhancers can be culprits: employees are drowning in a high volume of e-mails, phone calls, and “snail” mail and are addicted to cell phones, PDAs, testing, instant messages, and all the other “helpful” tools that keep us connected 24/7.
To protect productivity, you may need to help your employees to remove the most common distractions. First, try to analyze what the most common distractions are in your organization – the above list might be a good starting point. Get managers together to brainstorm creative strategies to help employees avoid such distractions.
We’ve come across some good ideas for reducing distractions. Here are a few suggestions from the mundane to the creative:

  • Teach workers how to create and prioritze to-do lists, and to tackle the major priorities that relate to job goals before addressing the smaller or discretionary items.
  • Minimize meetings and keep them short and focused. Some companies only conduct meetings while standing up.
  • Suggest that workers open emails only a few times a day. Batching distractions can be a good way to deal with them. Some companies program incoming mail so that it is only be delivered to the desktop at certain intervals.
  • Give people “do not disturb” signs they can place at their workstations; encourage “quiet periods” or “quiet zones” – times or places in which silence is encouraged.
  • Consider supplying people with inexpensive personal printers and online fax services to lessen the need for walking to and waiting around central printers and faxes.
  • Establish a mandatory visitor check in at a central point. This is not only a good security measure, it also discourages frivolous visits and cuts down on distractions.
  • Establish a library for shared work subscriptions and resources. This is not only economical, it will limit distractions and provide a central place for research and professional development.

When real life problems are the distraction
While many of the distractions discussed above revolve around the work environment or work tools, we would expand the list by including distractions that arise from outside the workplace but that are brought in, such as home and family matters. These can range from juggling the normal demands of family life – children, school, aging parents, moving, etc – to more serious life problems, such as mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and legal or financial problems. When extreme stress, fear, or anxiety are at play, it’s nearly impossible for an employee to check these issues at the door and be fully engaged and productive in their work day. If you’ve ever experienced a life crisis like an elderly relative with Alzheimer’s, a spouse with a life-threatening illness, or a runaway teen, you quickly learn the difficulty in keeping a firewall between work and the job.
That’s when a good EAP can come into play, by offering the worker help to resources targeted to work-life issues, as well as help for the more serious and weighty problems that may be interfering with work, health, and emotional well-being. A good EAP will offer access to a variety of treatment options and resources for virtually any type of problems that a person might face. A good EAP could arguably be the single most effective productivity enhancer that an organization could invest in.


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