The Psychological Consequences of Clutter
“I can't work with all this stuff!”
Posted June 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Office clutter affects both production and work satisfaction, and increases emotional exhaustion.
- Personality factors influence our relationship to office clutter.
- Clutter, both in the home and in the home office, has psychological consequences.
I don't like working from home. As I write this article, I have been working remotely for over 15 months because of shutdowns aiming to stop the spread of COVID-19. Fortunately, I pray, we will be safe as we slowly open. Still, for corporations, over time it might be financially wise to have employees work from home to save rent and utility expenses. Sure, we could continue at home—but should we?
Something is missing with remote working, more than just contact with other employees. True, I do not miss the traffic to and from work (sometimes 90 minutes wasted) and I enjoy the extra time at home for walks outdoors. But I miss being with my students and my research teams, engaged in scholarship, and planning for conferences. Replacing all that contact is increased time online. Frankly, I find myself just as busy—maybe more so—with online meetings. I get “Zoomed out.”
We must examine what people do while working in their home office, or in their corporate office—and one lens through which to do that is the impact of office clutter.
What We Know About Office Clutter
Catherine Roster, a professor of marketing and consumer psychology at the University of New Mexico, along with myself and several DePaul University undergraduate and graduate students, examined office clutter’s impact on employees working in a business office or a home office. Roster is considered one of the leading scholars in consumer disposal decision processes.
I've written in the past about what we learned about home clutter (or "stuff"). (See Roster, Ferrari, & Jurkat, 2016 for our initial study.) We define clutter as an overabundance of possessions (stuff) that interferes with the quality of one’s life. In this article, I share our other line of scholarship, around office stuff. Despite popular articles and books, we found that researchers often failed to examine how office clutter might impact personal workspaces. A greater understanding of the factors that promote office clutter might help organizations and workers address sources of workspace conditions and personal habits that impede productivity and well-being.
In one study (Roster & Ferrari, 2020a), we wondered if workers whose jobs required them to deal with a heavy volume of work at a rapid pace would be more likely to experience job strain (i.e., emotional exhaustion), which, in turn, depleted their energy and made them more likely to delay decisions. Decisional procrastination (indecision) was expected to increase office clutter, which itself is a physical stressor. Data from an Internet survey of 290 U.S. office workers recruited through Prolific Academic supported these hypotheses around office clutter. This study was the first to examine clutter as a physical stressor in the workplace.
In another, related study (Roster & Ferrari, 2020b), we wondered if employees being able to control their work time would provide a buffer against job stressors and strains. Using a sample of 356 U.S. adult office workers, through Prolific Academic, we tested whether procrastination tendencies moderated the benefits of perceived time control in the workplace. Having a sense of personal control over one’s work time both mediated and exerted direct effects on the relationship between workload and emotional exhaustion, and procrastination tendencies moderated that sense of time control. Our findings suggested that giving workers more control over their time may reduce the stress associated with demanding workloads. However, chronic procrastinators may benefit less from having more control over time resources if they are not provided with tools to help them self-regulate more effectively.
Master of I/O psychology graduate Trina Dao (for her thesis) and I explored workplace clutter and employee behavior (Dao & Ferrari, 2020). Using a crowd-sourced sample of 290 U.S. adults employed full-time in office and/or home settings, we surveyed whether office clutter impacted workplace well-being (job satisfaction, job tension, employee engagement, burnout, and occupational stress). It was hypothesized that office clutter would negatively impact job satisfaction and employee engagement, positively impact emotional exhaustion and occupational stress, and that job-related tension would moderate the relationship between office clutter and job satisfaction. Results again showed that office clutter predicted emotional exhaustion and stress.
What About Remote Workers in Home Offices?
Recently, DePaul doctoral student in community psychology Helena Swenson, psychology Master's student Devki Patel, and I tried to address more questions on office clutter (Ferrari, Swenson, & Patel, 2021a). In one study, we found that upper-level employees (like managers and CEO) and lower-level workers (clerical, IT workers) both reported that office clutter impacted negatively on their work production, and made them more exhausted and dissatisfied with work. But upper management employees were more concerned about the impact of office clutter on their work productivity.
With the onset of the pandemic, many employees shifted to working remotely from home. We examined perceptions by 88 U.S. remote workers surveyed at home through crowdsourcing (Prolific Academic) before the start of the pandemic. We asked about home office clutter items, indecision, procrastination, and work-related affective and behavioral factors (Ferrari, Swenson, & Patel, 2021b). Results showed that both indecision and behavioral procrastination were related to poor job performance, and indicated that the degree of office clutter, its impact, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction were predicted by indecision, behavioral procrastination, and attitudes towards personalizing workspace.
Moreover, the most frequently reported home office clutter items from over 760 things listed (in order of prevalence) were paper, trash (e.g., used coffee cups), and office supplies. Clutter items did not significantly differ from persons reporting whether they did or not personalize their office space. This study was the first to explore what folks report as clutter items.
Summary: So What?
OK, what does all this data mean? I suggest, declutter that office! Get through all those piles of paper, and sort them—and throw out most of them. Remove trash and organize office supplies. Why should you do this? Because the above research suggests that office clutter decreases your job performance and workplace satisfaction, and relates to indecision and emotional exhaustion. These are not positive outcomes.
Live, based on science.
LinkedIn image: thodonal88/Shutterstock
Ferrari, J.R., Swanson, H.L., & Patel, D.A. (2021a). Office clutter: Comparing lower and upper-level employees on work-related criteria. International Journal of Psychological Research and Review, 4, 1-10.
Ferrari, J.R., Swanson, H., & Patel, D. (2021b). The impact of office clutter on remote working: “I can’t work with all this stuff?” North American Journal of Psychology, 23, 155-171.
Dao, T.N., & Ferrari, J.R. (2020). The negative side of office clutter: Impact of work-related well-
being and job satisfaction. North American Journal of Psychology, 22, 441-454.
Roster, C., & Ferrari, J.R. (2020a). Does work stress lead to office clutter, and how? Mediating
influences of emotional exhaustion and indecision. Environment & Behavior, 52, 923-941.
Roster, C.A., & Ferrari, J.R. (2020b). Time is on my side, or is it? The influence of perceived control over time and procrastination on emotional exhaustion on the job. Behavioral Sciences, 10, 1-15.
Roster, C.A., Ferrari, J.R., & Jurkat, M.P. (2016). The dark side of home: Assessing possession 'clutter' on subjective well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 46, 32-41.