Employees overcome home distractions by using working memory


Are family challenges distracting you at work, making your job feel demanding and stressful?

You’re not alone. But for people who use their working memory, which helps them manage distractions, they can reduce the impact of family problems at work, according to a new study.


Research by Oscar Ybarra, professor emeritus of psychology in LSA, and Google researcher Todd Chan highlights the role of working memory — an ability to hold and manipulate information simultaneously in one’s mind — as it relates to family life affecting one’s job performance.

In other words, when intrusive thoughts enter the mind, working memory is needed to keep track of the thoughts one should remain focused on, said Ybarra, who is now a professor at the University of Illinois.

“Thus, working memory is required to ensure that if distractions intrude, individuals can maintain focus amidst those distractions,” he said.

Family life distractions could involve being responsive to a spouse or one’s parents, caring for children, keeping up with cleaning or putting a meal together.

“The best many of us can hope for is to keep thoughts of family and home life at bay and out of mind so that we can focus on our work for a few hours,” said Chan, a psychology doctoral graduate of U-M.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 2,500 people, who described their physical and psychological happenings at work and home. Study participants assessed job demands and resources, as well as disclosed problems with their spouse or partner, kids and parents in the last 12 months.

To determine their working memory, participants were presented with a series of digits, one at a time, of increasing length and difficulty, and were asked to repeat them backward. Digits were presented starting with two-digit strings and they increased in length to a maximum of eight digits.

The study indicated that as people reported experiencing more family problems during the last year, the more they felt their job was demanding. This showed family problems seeping into their assessment of work, Ybarra said.

Individuals with lower working memory reported increasing job demands with more family problems, the study showed. This relationship does not hold for individuals with high working memory because they had an increased ability to prevent the stresses of the family domain from acting as a distraction to their work.

When there are few family problems, there is little need to utilize working memory, Ybarra said. This does not suggest that individuals with higher working memory experience fewer family problems — they’re just better able to fend off those distractions.

The findings appear in the journal Community, Work & Family.



  1. Andy Brosius
    on April 2, 2024 at 9:21 am

    This article is pushing a culture of overwork and burnout. This quote threw me: ““The best many of us can hope for is to keep thoughts of family and home life at bay and out of mind so that we can focus on our work for a few hours,” said Chan, a psychology doctoral graduate of U-M.”

    I strongly disagree – the best I hope for is a job that provides me with the flexibility to attend to any and every family and home life issue as needed, even during the work day. What kind of dystopia must we live in that we see ignoring substantive issues in our home lives to be more productive workers as a valued skill?

  2. Andria Goedert
    on April 2, 2024 at 10:55 am

    I agree with Andy, we’re whole people juggling multiple demands in our complex lives. The best we can hope for are jobs that support those lives and the often unavoidable family problems that arise. This article also puts the stress and responsibility back on the worker and whether or not they have the ability to “fend off distractions” instead of having an accommodating work place that is flexible and prioritizes a worker’s wellbeing. Perhaps the script should be flipped, and there would be “little need to utilize working memory” when there are fewer demands at work.

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