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The way you use your mouse or keyboard says a lot about your level of stress at work

Researchers at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, have developed a model to detect the levels of stress someone experiences at work based on how they type and move their mouse. The results can help prevent chronic stress before it becomes too serious.

In Switzerland, a third of workers experience stress at work. In the United States, the figure is higher, with 40% of employees saying their job is very or extremely stressful, while 25% think their job is the biggest stressor in their lives. The arrival of the recent global pandemic of COVID-19 has aggravated this situation, as its impacts on work and social environments have led to a marked increase in mental stress and associated symptoms of depression.

Those who suffer from such stress often do not realize how serious the situation is until it is too late and their physical and mental resources are exhausted. As such, it is important to identify work-related stress as early as possible so that it can be managed effectively.

The new model developed by Mara Nägelin, mathematician and lead author of the study, and her colleagues represents a valuable step in this effort. Using machine learning and new data, the model can detect workplace stress levels based on how people use their mouse and keyboard.

“The way we type on our keyboard and move our mouse seems to be a better predictor of our stress level in an office environment than our heart rate,” Nägelin said in a statement.

To develop their model, the team observed 90 study participants in a lab as they performed simulated office tasks that were as realistic as possible, such as scheduling appointments or checking in and evaluating. of data. The researchers recorded the participants’ mouse and keyboard behaviors, as well as their heart rates. They also frequently asked participants to show they were stressed.

The study participants were separated into two groups. Half were allowed to work undisturbed, while the other half were subjected to repeated chat messages and asked to participate in a job interview. Unlike other work stress studies where control group members were allowed to relax and not undertake work tasks, all participants in this study performed office activities.

The results showed that the more an individual is stressed, the more his mouse and keyboard behavior is erratic and inaccurate. “Stressed people move the mouse pointer more often and less precisely and cover longer distances on the screen,” Nägelin said. “Relaxed people, on the other hand, take shorter, more direct routes to reach their destination and take longer to do so.”

Stressed people are more likely to make errors when typing, and they write in spurts with frequent short pauses. In contrast, relaxed people take fewer breaks, but tend to last longer when typing on a keyboard.

The link between stress and these activities can be explained by what is called the neuromotor noise theory. “Increased stress levels have a negative impact on our brain’s ability to process information,” added Jasmine Kerr, psychologist and co-author of the study. “It also affects our motor skills.”

Interestingly, the team found that there didn’t seem to be too much variation in the heart rates of people in the control group or participants who worked with constant interruptions.

“We were surprised that typing and mouse behavior was a better predictor of how stressed subjects felt better than heart rate,” Nägelin said. This could be because everyone was participating in workplace tasks, which seemed to mean that their heart rates didn’t vary all that much.

The researchers are currently testing their model with data from Swiss employees who have agreed to have their mouse and keyboard activities monitored as well as their heart rate. This will be done on the job using an app that also asks the participant to rate their stress level. The hope is that the new results will be available by the end of the year.

However, this work raises difficult challenges. “The only way people will accept and use our technology is to guarantee that we will anonymize and protect their data. We want to help workers identify stress early, not create a monitoring tool for companies,” Kerr added.

A growing body of research is now exploring what functionality an app needs to satisfy this distinction so that sensitive data can be collected and processed in a reasonable and ethical manner.

The study is published in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics.

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