The noise from the drill outside is filling your office … and your head. You are trying to concentrate on the report you have to write for the Board which is due at midday, but your mind keeps skidding off the screen and back to that ghastly noise.
Distraction like this is stressful for most of us – in fact it is a major problem for many people who work in large, open-plan offices, where they are expected to focus while surrounded by the voices of a dozen colleagues. So what can you do about it? Suppose that your boss arranges for a button to be installed on your desk and tells you that when you find yourself feeling stressed by distracting noise, pressing that button will stop it by activating a sound shield around your desk. But the device is expensive to run and you should use it sparingly, she says.
The deadline for another report is looming, and the drill is still growling outside, so you are grateful to have the possibility of getting rid of it. But actually, you find yourself in the flow and so feel less stressed by the distraction – and in a rush, the report is finished. You lean back on your chair and stretch in satisfaction. But actually, your boss was lying. The button didn’t do anything. She was just giving you the belief that you had potential control over the noise, when in reality, you didn’t have any objective control.
Research consistently shows that perceived control is a considerable stress reliever . And in general people who believe that they have at least some control over their working lives end up happier, healthier and more productive . In general, the more senior you are in an organization, the better is your mental and physical health and the longer you will live on average . Much of this beneficial effect of seniority is because of the increased control that those higher up in the hierarchy have.
Two people in the same office may have exactly the same objective level of control over their working day, which will be lower for more junior employees. But if one believes that he has more control than the other, he will have lower blood pressure and lower stress hormones than the one who believes that he has little control . In practical terms, we can all build in a little more control into our working lives and so reduce the stress. Sound-attenuating earphones can reduce distracting sounds, as can breaking down tasks into sub-goals and rewarding ourselves with a short break when we have achieved it. For example, “right, I will spend 15 minutes all out on this draft then I am going to stretch my legs by going to the water cooler.”
If we chunk our working day in that way we are taking control, to some extent, of our work schedule, and this strengthens a more general feeling of control. And as we have seen, feeling in control has remarkably positive effects on body and mind.
- Corah, N. and J. Boffa, Perceived control, self-observation, and response to aversive stimulation.
- Spector, P.E., Interactive effects of perceived control and job stressors on affective reactions and health outcomes for clerical workers. Work & Stress, 1987. 1(2): p. 155-162.
- Wilkinson, R.G. and M.G. Marmot, Social determinants of health: the solid facts. 2003: World Health Organization.
- Morrison, C., et al., Effect of socioeconomic group on incidence of, management of, and survival after myocardial infarction and coronary death: analysis of community coronary event register. Bmj, 1997. 314(7080): p. 541.