More stress and fewer rewards: Why being versatile at work is not so good for us
In addition to suffering burnout and loss of concentration, multitaskers often do not get recognition for their effort
If you’ve ever undertaken a job search, you will be well aware that “knowing how to work under pressure” or “ability to multitask” often appear among the requirements for a role. These have become almost ubiquitous requirements for many jobs, but they have a hidden cost when it comes to the mental health of workers and indeed their professional performance/performance at work.
The first – and one that has been pointed out by several researchers – is that sustained multitasking leads to memory loss and an impaired ability to pay attention. As the psychologist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology Tomás Santa Cecilia explains to S Moda, wanting to cover many tasks at the same time ends up being counterproductive: “The studies that have been carried out in this regard show that multitasking stresses our central nervous system, specifically, the brain. Throughout history, societies have been guided by false beliefs or myths and, precisely, there is a false belief in our culture that multitasking is effective. What we are seeing is that
As several researchers have pointed out, sustained multitasking leads to memory loss and an impaired ability to pay attention.
As psychologist Tomás Santa Cecilia explains, covering many tasks at the same time is actually counterproductive.
“Studies show that multitasking stresses our central nervous system, specifically the brain,” explains the specialist in cognitive behavioral psychology.
“Throughout history, societies have been guided by false beliefs or myths,” he adds.
“Indeed, in our culture, there is a false belief that multitasking is effective. What we are seeing instead is that people who multitask for a continuous period of time end up totally exhausted and stressed out.”
Multitasking perhaps feels effective, because you are doing a lot of things at once, says Santa Cecilia. “But it’s not efficient.”
“What it really does is sap our energy, creating exhaustion and a feeling of constant frustration.”
The pace of working life these days, he notes, is set by technology and machines.
“But we are not computers; human beings cannot be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
“It is essential to schedule a few hours a day to rest.”
What’s good for the company is not good for the worker
When workers are forced to perform many different tasks, they also take on a volume of work and responsibilities that are less likely to be recognized in the pay and conditions set by employers. In other words, while being versatile might be very positive for the company, it may not be for the employee.
To be sure, the capacity to multi-task can become a double-edged sword, said Marc Tierz, who is Director of Marketing and Communication at etalentum, a headhunting and recruitment consultancy. Employees who show great versatility often do not get to grow professionally or develop a specialization to enhance their career. As a result, some companies are beginning to question the emphasis on multitasking: while “the ability to multitask and be anonymous is still in demand,” says Tierz, “it has gone into recession.”
“Personally, I question the efficiency, for example, of dedicating the time of a professional who is trained in a specific discipline to another task of lesser value for which she has not received the same training,” says Tierz, suggesting that said professional will need to invest more time in it and/or not be able to complete it as well as possible. Instead, “that time [should] be devoted to what he or she really excels at.”
While it is on a downward trend, Tierz says multitasking is still a very present requirement in areas such as marketing or sales positions, where workers are required to know a little bit of everything in order to cover as many aspects of the business as possible.
“Authors such as Nicholas Carr claim that dedicating ourselves to multiple tasks makes our brain conform to this task management, losing the ability to think deeply and creatively,” explains Tierz.
“If true, this is harmful for managers, designers, advertisers or product developers.”
Mónica Segura is Associate Director at Robert Walters, a multinational company specializing in the search and selection of middle and senior managers. Segura notes that ‘multitasking’ is no longer used in most role descriptions, while perceptions about it have changed over the years.
“What was once seen as a quality meant professionals were faster at accomplishing their tasks with greater productivity and the ability to take on more responsibility,” Segura explains, “has, over time been shown to be associated with a higher level of stress,” indeed, it is now evident that “it is impossible, even at a cerebral level, to attend to two tasks at the same time.”
Job searchers and other potential employees looking at position descriptions and job ads also now see the term ‘multitasking’ as having negative connotations, which has led companies to focus on other concepts and terminology.
In work environments characterized by ‘VUCA’ [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity], says Segura, employers are looking for professional skills that can navigate constant challenges and changes. These include “creativity, teamwork, resilience, positive attitude in the face of adversity and uncertainty,” and, “the capacity for constant learning, self-knowledge and effective decision making.”
Among these requirements, “the concept most similar to multitasking would be related to versatility, flexibility, ability to work under pressure and stress, but performing the task with quality and quickly and efficiently.”
For someone who has been assigned multiple tasks at work, how can they convey to superiors that this is detrimental to their health while also showing that they are not ‘shirking their duties’?
For the psychologist Tomás Santa Cecilia, assertiveness is crucial here - that is, “on the one hand, knowing how to say things without hurting others – and, on the other, to learn to set limits and say no”:
‘Saying no’ is “one of the great difficulties we have as human beings,’ he said.
“We have to recognize that our capacity and energy has limits.”
To enact this self-care as a worker, Santa Cecilia suggests responding with, “I can’t get to all these tasks today, so please tell me which are the priorities.”
In personnel selection, says Mónica Segura, this capacity to say no and prioritize is also valued, showing that the professional is resilient and has the ability to set limits or speak up when tackling all the work becomes really impossible.
Santa Cecilia also advises scheduling the time to be dedicated to each task, in order to reduce the stress that comes from having multiple tasks to do at once. When each task is completed, the worker can say to themselves. “I’ve done this, that’s great, look how well it came out,” and then dedicate two minutes to breathe, rest, and become aware that we have finished something before tackling something else next.”
The psychologist says putting these rules into practice will improve wellbeing and prevent future ill health. Without rest, setting limits, and having a clear schedule for tasks, “we end up in the emergency room and it is a medical professional telling us we have to take a leave of absence because we are exhausted.”