The Cycle of Workplace Depression and Distraction

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Indistractable" by Nir Eyal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can workplace depression cause you to turn to distractions? How do you know if you have a dysfunctional work culture? How can you fix workplace dysfunction?

In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal discusses how workplace depression often causes employees to seek out distractions—this often leads to a dangerous cycle of depression and distraction. This phenomenon is often caused by a dysfunctional workplace and must be fixed or it can lead to psychological unsafety.

Here is what Nir Eyal has to say about ending the workplace depression and distraction cycle.

Cultivate an Indistractable Work Culture 

Your indistractability will naturally touch all parts of your life—and, with conscious application, you can use it to improve these areas.

The area we’ll explore in this article is your workplace—while you may be on your way to developing strong indistractable habits, a toxic work culture can easily derail you. 

  • For example, your boss might derail your timeboxed schedule by calling a last-minute meeting, or you might have family dinner time interrupted by a colleague in a different time zone organizing an “urgent” video conference.

You can’t be your best at work if you’re distracted the whole time—but solving the problem requires a bit of digging. A common scapegoat for workplace distraction is the technology that keeps employees connected inside and outside of the office. But of course, technology itself isn’t at the heart of distraction—internal discomfort is. 

Workplace Depression and Distraction

Numerous organizations cultivate work cultures that can cause clinical depression in their employees. Two factors significantly contribute to workplace depression:

  1. High job strain: This happens in work environments where employees must meet high expectations but have little control over their schedules, the outcome of their work, workload, and so on. 
  2. Effort-reward imbalance: This happens when workers don’t see rewards for their work, such as raises, recognition, time off, and so on.

Both of these factors are stressful for the same reason: Employees feel that they don’t have any control over their work, no matter how much effort they put in. When an employee feels depressed or that they’re lacking control at work, they’ll turn to an escape that makes them feel productive or in control. This may look like sifting through emails, putting together an unnecessary meeting, or chiming in on group chats.

The Cycle of Depression and Distraction

This method of soothing depression with distraction easily becomes a cycle that continually exacerbates itself. Employees feel that they’re under the control of their managers, and they work hard to please them in hopes that they’ll eventually get the recognition they deserve. 

  • This means that if their manager sends them an email first thing in the morning with an idea, they’ll take care of it right away. If a different manager sends an email late at night with a different idea, they’ll stay up late to take care of it. In these situations, employees feel that they need to be “on” and accessible at all times to meet their managers’ expectations. When employees are constantly available, the reciprocity cycle thrives—they respond immediately to their managers, who respond immediately to them, and so on. Often, any relevant employee gets pulled into the cycle, making the issue of reciprocity worse. 

This situation reveals that the problem isn’t technology—it’s dysfunctional work culture. Depressed, strained employees are forced into a constant, worsening state of distraction by trying to please managers and meet expectations. If your workplace has a distraction or technology overuse problem, you have a dysfunctional work culture. It’s crucial to dig into your culture and figure out how to fix it, because dysfunction creates a host of problems, such as high rates of burnout, high employee turnover, lost productivity, and so on.

How to Fix Workplace Dysfunction and Distraction

To start fixing deep-rooted dysfunctions in your workplace, as a manager, first think about what the real problem is—for example, lack of control, unpredictable schedules, or the expectation that employees be “on” all the time. Once you’ve pinpointed the issue, present a simple solution. 

  • For example, if your employees are stressed because they feel as though they need to be accessible at all times, propose at least two non-negotiable nights off per week. If your employees don’t see much reward for their work, propose a monthly meeting where you discuss the projects their work contributed to. 

Confirm with your team that your proposed solution is something that will help them. If they agree, tell them you approve the idea but it’s up to them to figure out how to make it possible, and encourage them to meet regularly to talk about it. In these meetings, the group will discuss what’s standing in their way, and which of their workplace practices will have to change to make their goal happen. These discussions will naturally open up new ideas, prompt employees to question the status quo, and find practical employee-level solutions. 

The Importance of Psychological Safety

These discussions must be built on a foundation of psychological safetythe understanding that no one will be mocked or punished when they bring up criticism, questions, or ideas. The best solutions, ideas, and outcomes are produced by groups that establish psychological safety. 

First, psychological safety naturally contributes to essential group qualities such as dependability, clarity, sense of purpose, and sense of impact. Second, when people can speak without fear of judgment, they contribute better ideas: 

  • People will share diverse ideas, rather than parroting ideas that won’t be mocked or rejected. This leads to more innovative and creative solutions.
  • People will raise valid concerns such as lack of recognition, the expectation to be “on” all the time, unclear expectations, and conflicting information. Previously, they may have kept these concerns to themselves for fear of being seen as lazy or not committed to their work. 

Third, these discussions allow managers the time to explain big-picture goals and strategies, which they may not bring up in more “urgent” meetings. This helps employees contextualize their work and understand the impact of their efforts. 

When you identify workplace dysfunction and give employees a place to discuss and solve your work culture’s issues, you increase the control they feel over their work and increase their satisfaction—driving down distraction and the overuse of technology. 

(Shortform note: Read our summary of Dare to Lead for tips on fostering a sense of psychological safety in your workplace.) 

The Cycle of Workplace Depression and Distraction

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Nir Eyal's "Indistractable" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Indistractable summary :

  • How to become indistractable in a world full of distractions
  • Why your schedule should be based on your values instead of tasks
  • How to start driving your life instead of letting its distractions drive you

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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