person typing on a laptop

A software developer working on a laptop (Photo by Cytonn Photography from Unsplash)

ZÜRICH, Switzerland — Are work deadlines stressing you out? A new study finds it doesn’t take a therapist to see if office pressures are causing workers stress — all you have to do is look at how they use a keyboard! Researchers from ETH Zurich have developed a model which can detect workplace stress just by examining how people type and move their computer mouse.

Study authors note that many workers don’t realize that their physical and mental resources are deteriorating until it’s too late. Using new data and machine learning techniques, the team is hoping to spot the signs of workplace stress before employees (and their businesses) lose productivity. Their results show that key signs workers are dealing with stress is an increasing number of typing mistakes and more erratic mouse movements than usual.

“How we type on our keyboard and move our mouse seems to be a better predictor of how stressed we feel in an office environment than our heart rate,” explains study author Mara Nägelin, a mathematician who conducts research at the Chair of Technology Marketing and the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich, in a university release.

“People who are stressed move the mouse pointer more often and less precisely and cover longer distances on the screen. Relaxed people, on the other hand, take shorter, more direct routes to reach their destination and take more time doing so,” Nägelin adds.

Additionally, the model finds office workers who feel stressed tend to write in bursts, starting and stopping and taking many brief pauses. Relaxed workers tend to take fewer pauses while typing. When they do, however, their pauses are longer — similar to taking a mini break.

Stressed man at work, suffering from headache at office
(© Prostock-studio – stock.adobe.com)

Why does stress change how you type?

Study authors say the connection between stress and changing office behavior is explainable through the neuromotor noise theory.

“Increased levels of stress negatively impact our brain’s ability to process information. This also affects our motor skills,” explains study co-author and psychologist Jasmine Kerr, who works with Nägelin.

During this study, researchers followed 90 participants in a lab as they performed office tasks which were as close to the real thing as possible. These tasks included scheduling appointments, recording data, and analyzing paperwork.

Study authors recorded each person’s mouse and keyboard behavior during the tasks and also monitored their heart rates. Throughout the experiment, the team asked the participants several times how stressed they felt while working. Some of the participants were allowed to work without any distractions, while others had to take part in a job interview. Half of this group also had to deal with repeated interruptions from chat messages.

The Swiss team notes that previous studies on work stress allowed control groups to relax and not do any problem-solving tasks. In this study, however, every participant performed office tasks.

“We were surprised that typing and mouse behavior was a better predictor of how stressed subjects felt better than heart rate,” Nägelin says.

Nägelin believes the reason heart rate is a poor measure of workplace stress is because both groups (stressed and relaxed) performed the same office tasks. In the new study, these groups had similar heart rates as they completed their work. However, those under stress literally let their fingers do their talking for them.

The findings are published in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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