There’s a New Way to Spot Stressed Employees, Study Finds

By Alana Smart / June 7, 2023 / Blog ,

There’s a New Way to Spot Stressed Employees, Study Finds

Are your employees banging away on their mouse and keyboards? It might be a signal that they are feeling stressed. Stress in the workplace is a ubiquitous issue. With looming deadlines, crazy schedules, and heavy workloads it is understandable that employees sometimes feel the strain. Rates of stress and depressive symptoms have drastically risen since the COVID-19 pandemic. Stress is also the most frequently cited mental health issue in the workplace. When it comes to stress, often employees are unaware of the toll it takes until it’s too late, so a tool to spot stressed employees would be a game changer.

Scientifically spotting stressed employees

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, or ETH Zurich sought out a solution to achieve continuous, personalized, and real-time stress detection. They recruited 90 individuals for their lab experiment which simulated office tasks as closely to real life as possible. Participants performed various office tasks, like data entry, data analysis, and appointment planning while their heart rate, mouse and keyboard behaviors were closely monitored. Additionally, participants answered survey questions about their stress levels throughout the study. This incorporated a multidimensional approach to collect behavioral data, physiological data, and psychological self-reported data.

While some participants were allowed to work undisturbed, others also had the added stressor of a job interview. Half of this group were also repeatedly interrupted with chat messages. In contrast to earlier studies by other scientists, the control group did not get to relax, in the ETH researchers’ experiment, all participants had to perform the office tasks.

The surprising connection between stress and behavior

The study revealed fascinating results that shed light on the connection between stress and digital interactions. According to Mara Nägelin, a researcher at ETH Zurich, stressed individuals tend to exhibit certain behavioral patterns. They move the mouse pointer more frequently and less accurately, covering longer distances on the screen. On the other hand, relaxed individuals take more direct routes to accomplish their tasks and take more time doing so, demonstrating a more focused and efficient approach. By observing these behaviors, it may be easier to spot stressed employees.

Interestingly, the study also revealed a connection between stress and typing proficiency. Participants who experienced stress made more mistakes while typing and exhibited a start-and-stop writing style with frequent pauses. People who are relaxed take fewer but longer pauses when typing.

The connection between stress and typing and mouse behavior can be explained by neuromotor noise theory. A theory which proposes that increased physical or cognitive stressors can overwhelm the brain’s information-processing system. “Increased levels of stress negatively impact our brain’s ability to process information. This also affects our motor skills,” explains psychologist Jasmine Kerr, coauthor of the study.  

Although heart rate has traditionally been a go-to measure for stress assessment, this study found that behaviors like typing and clicking were a better predictor of stress level than heart rate. 

Looking to the future

The potential for stress detection through keyboard and mouse behavior is promising. Nägelin and her colleagues are testing this stress model with employee data in Switzerland and via the use of an app. However, they acknowledge that it could raise “some thorny issues”. They stressed the importance of addressing privacy concerns and ensuring data anonymization to gain people’s trust in this technology.

“The only way people will accept and use our technology is if we can guarantee that we will anonymize and protect their data,” Kerr said. “We want to help workers to identify stress early, not create a monitoring tool for companies.”

Workplace stress remains a significant concern for both employees and employers. The potential of using this data to spot stressed employees in real-time brings hope for healthier and more supportive work environments. By prioritizing responsible data handling and employee well-being, this innovative approach could redefine how workplace stress is managed and prevented, leading to improved health, well-being, and productivity in the long run.

The study was published online in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics.

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