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Does skill at work make interruptions worse?

Expertise is clearly beneficial in the workplace, but workers who are highly trained may actually be at more risk for making errors if they are interrupted.

The reason: Since these workers are generally faster at performing procedural tasks, their actions are more closely spaced in time—which means it can be harder to recall where exactly a worker left off when the interruption happened.

“Suppose a nurse is interrupted while preparing to give a dose of medication and then must remember whether he or she administered the dose,” says Erik Altmann, a psychology professor at Michigan State University.

“The more experienced nurse will remember less accurately than a less-practiced nurse, other things being equal, if the more experienced nurse performs the steps involved in administering medication more quickly.”

That’s not to say skilled nurses should avoid giving medication, but only that high skill levels could be a risk factor for increased errors after interruptions. Experts who perform a task quickly and accurately have probably figured out strategies for keeping their place in a task, Altmann says.

For the study, published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 224 people performed two sessions of a computer-based procedural task on separate days. Participants were interrupted randomly by a simple typing task, after which they had to remember the last step they performed to select the correct step to perform next.

We slow down after mistakes, but still mess up

In the second session, people became faster, and on most measures, more accurate. After interruptions, however, they became less accurate, making more errors by resuming the task at the wrong spot.

“The faster things happen, the worse we remember them,” Altmann says. The findings suggest that it may be beneficial to offer training and equipment designed to help employees remember where they were when they stopped working.

The Office of Naval Research funded the work.

Source: Michigan State University

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