First Reference company logo

First Reference Talks

News and Discussions on Payroll, HR & Employment Law

decorative image

Multi-tasking: where do you draw the line?

I was having some fun in my last post, but don’t let that fool you: multi-tasking is a serious business!

Image taken from:

Image taken from:

It’s so serious that workers are taking their work into the washroom, with disturbing results. According to The Co-operative Pharmacy, one-third of Brits admit they’ve made a “stall-call”—that is, a call from the toilet, not just the restroom—whether for business or pleasure. And one in twenty said they’ve taken their laptop with them when nature called. The survey also found a significant—and disgusting—number of people eat, drink and brush their teeth while answering nature’s call.

Need I say: gross?

These people are taking multi-tasking to a whole new, and much lower, level.

In my last post I wrote that it may in fact be impossible for people to perform more than one high-level or intelligent function at the same time. And when people try to combine multiple high-level tasks, they usually end up actually wasting a lot of time.

Matt Richtel writes in the New York Times:

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information … and they experience more stress. … even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

Stall-calls, however, bring up an entirely different set of risks. While most people are probably capable of performing their biological functions while talking on the phone or surfing the web, combining these tasks increases the risk of cross-contamination and the spread of germs and infection—especially when the talker or surfer chooses not to wash her or his hands afterwards (which is unfortunately common). Either way, any germs and bacteria that the user or device might have picked up in the stall will remain there until washed. And who washes their phone or laptop? (I’m not talking about a quick wipe on your pant leg. I’m talking about soap and water.)

And germs lead to infections and sicknesses, and time away from work, and the attendant loss in productivity, and so on. The same argument applies to driving and talking on a hand-held cellphone or using some other attention-diverting device at the same time. By choosing to do so, we voluntarily increase the risk of illness, injury and worse—in exchange for a couple more minutes of presumed productivity in our day.

Managing Director of The Co-operative Pharmacy, John Nuttall, says:

The new trend of using smart and mobile phones in addition to laptops on the toilet is inadvertently raising the risk of the spread of infections, which affect hundreds of thousands of people. The symptoms are very unpleasant for most people and, in some circumstances, can be fatal.

So where does an employer draw the line? And is it even worth trying to discourage employees from taking these risky actions? (That is, will they listen and obey?) In the case of driving while talking on a phone, the issue is a bit clearer: employees have a duty to protect their employees from health and safety hazards; combined with bans in some provinces and the threat of vicarious liability, employers must do what they can to stop employees from engaging in this reckless behaviour.

But what about germs? They’re everywhere. Obviously, employers must maintain a clean, hygienic and healthy work environment, but does this duty extend to employees’ personal and work phones and laptops? Regardless of their legal obligations, employers can take steps to promote healthy and hygienic habits and discourage employees from multi-tasking in the bathroom. Educating employees on the dangers associated with bathroom multi-tasking might go a long way to preventing illness. Developing a policy that prohibits the use of work phones and devices, as well as eating and drinking, in washroom stalls might sound practical, but could be hard to enforce. Certainly, developing healthy and respectful relationships with and among employees should encourage everyone to reconsider any risky behaviour.

Heck, even suggesting that employees take their business to the bathroom might be enough to shame them into not doing it.

But I want to know what you think about the issue. Is it too gross to talk about? Are all of your co-workers disgusting pigs? Has your organization taken any steps to address this issue?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

Follow me

Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
Follow me

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are currently closed.