How context switching can lead to employee burnout

context switching

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  • Employees who experience frequent interruptions during work report a 9 percent higher exhaustion rate.
  • Creating a healthy culture of employee engagement is fundamental when prioritising digital wellness among employees.

Every time we switch tasks at work, there is a cost. Whether we are completing a report, brainstorming an innovative idea or trying to create content, context switching can eat up as much as 40 percent of our productive time. To drive employee engagement, we must create space for more meaningful and focused work – especially in our now ‘always on’ remote working habits.

So how can we drive employee engagement in a complex, task-ridden world? This can be achieved by building a culture of digital wellness and being intentional about the relationship between people and work technology. As we face the real cost of context switching on employee engagement, we can create healthier spaces for employees to focus on meaningful work.

Why context switching is a challenge for employee productivity

Context switching is a real challenge because the demands of everyday work will always require task switching. Whether it’s routine tasks like catching up on emails, team-based tasks like participating in brainstorming meetings, or creative tasks like writing code, typical workdays include multiple contexts of work. There’s also a technology side to task switching, as the average business worker relies on more than nine different applications for everyday work, checks their email 74 times, and gets 46 notifications every day.

However, just because task switching is inevitable doesn’t make it healthy. Employees who experience frequent interruptions report a 9 percent higher exhaustion rate, and these conditions have likely worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as work life and home life occupy the same physical spaces. Beyond hurting employee productivity, too much context switching can make employees feel like they aren’t accomplishing anything of value during the workday.

“As organisations hit the ground running for the new year, many will experience a post-holiday lag, which may unfortunately cause employees to feel overwhelmed and demotivated,” notes Matthew McKay, Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa at Citrix. “If this is not tackled strategically, with the right means of communication and management tools, employees could experience an early lap of burnout.”

Creating a culture of employee engagement over context switching

So how can managers help employees transcend endless task switching and find a sense of meaning, especially in a now employment-anxious South Africa? The answer is creating a culture of employee engagement that prioritises digital wellness.

The first step here is to give employees space to focus and innovate:

  • Reserve dedicated weekly times when no meetings can be scheduled, and employees are encouraged to turn off notifications for a few hours. This gives them time for focused creative work in a single context.
  • Establish a structured meeting format that sticks to a planned agenda whenever employees formally meet. It’s also helpful to have a policy of not using phones or working in the background during meetings. This keeps everyone focused on collaboration instead of trying to sneak in multitasking.
  • Train employees on time management best practices based on common use cases or WFH norms—for example, being careful to avoid an overload of meetings that could be replaced with weekly emails.

There’s also a technology side to reducing task switching and encouraging employee engagement. When you adopt new technology, always ask how a tool can help support a culture of digital wellness:

  • Pay close attention to how new technology handles notifications and status updates. Too often, the platforms we rely on default to notifying us immediately in multiple ways whenever anything changes in our schedules, documents, or files. This can exacerbate context switching and hurt employees’ ability to focus.
  • Customise technology to batch notifications so they arrive at designated times. This gives employees more control over when they switch tasks.
  • Look for ways to automate routine tasks like expense approvals or meeting RSVPs. For example, an intelligent digital workspace with these capabilities can enhance employee focus by letting machine learning handle potential interruptions.

We can lead our employees to deeper engagement in a world dominated by task switching, but it will not happen by default. It’s up to us to be intentional about creating a culture that prioritises focus and meaningful work instead of being distracted by the most recent notification. This not only increases employee productivity, but provides them space to innovate, imagine, and enable a better future for your entire organisation.


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First published on: ForbesAfrica