Tens of thousands of pounds are being lost per person each year, because of distractions at work such as checking emails.

A study by the Economist in the US  has found that half of workers are unable to spend more than one uninterrupted hour a day, on a single task.

It says this results in 581 hours per person lost annually, which costs firms $34,448 (£25,398) per person.

The top two distractions are face-to-face interruptions from colleagues about work-related tasks and checking, reading, and responding to work-related emails.

Gloria Mark, a Professor at the University of California says: “Every time a person switches tasks, they make a cognitive shift which depletes their mental resources.”


Constantly checking emails is a major factor

The problem, however, is not the overall time spent checking emails, it is the frequency with which they are being checked. Nearly 70 percent of those polled said they checked their emails at least once an hour, preventing deeper periods of focus.

Cal Newport of Georgetown University said: “knowledge work is now, almost uniformly, via email. Anyone can reach anyone at any time for anything.”

Office spaces contribute to the loss of focus

Despite the emphasis on personal responsibility, the survey reveals that several causes of distraction are implicitly organisational. 

Open-plan office environments make economic sense, but can be highly distracting to some workers – face-to-face interruption is cited as the biggest source of distraction. 

For those working from home, the top distractions included easy access to food, TV, and video games.

Productivity losses vary by industry 

The hardest-hit industry in the US is professional, scientific, and technical services, which loses $178 billion (£131,283) in annual salary costs.

Information services had the greatest loss of focused time annually—an estimated salary cost of $62 billion (£45,7270 for the industry.

In the battle to reclaim focus, tech workers reigned supreme, employing diverse tactics such as putting on headphones, disabling phone, email, or desktop chat notifications, and reserving time for “no meeting” blocks.

Call for employers to build a culture of focus

Although individuals feel personally responsible for focus, most are at the mercy of their environment.

Alarmingly, the survey also found broader socio-economic factors at play with higher management staff able to focus considerably more than general staffers.

According to Mr. Newport, it is not enough for companies to simply tell workers to spend less time on their email; they need to re-think workflows in a deeper way. “If your company depends on unstructured, ad-hoc communication, telling people to check email less is not going to work.”

He is urging employers to build a culture of focus and be sensitive to ways in which organisational hierarchies might affect this, as the report found lower-ranked workers and middle managers face greater hurdles than executives and leaders.