Stress levels are the same with or without deadlines
Stress levels – Unlike retrospective and questionnaire-based studies, this research was done in real-time and multimodal and included physiological, observational, and psychometric measurements.
Deadlines are an integral part of modern knowledge work. Journalists must submit their weekly columns, managers their monthly reports, and researchers their papers and proposals on time. Despite their ubiquity, deadlines evoke negative feelings and are perceived as challenging events. Therefore, there is a tendency to eliminate them as much as possible. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States introduced the suppression of submission deadlines in some of its programs. However, critics argue that while they are painful, they are necessary because they motivate people to act.
Researchers from the University of Houston, Texas A&M (USA), and the Milan Polytechnic (Italy) set out to address the underlying question: “Does knowledge work near deadlines incur a greater sympathetic load?” Sympathetic arousal is the state of physiological arousal that indicates how “on their toes” people are, often leading to stress levels. Therefore, it is necessary to control its intensity and duration.
Following an ethical protocol approved by the institution, 10 consenting researchers were monitored while working in the office on the two days before a critical deadline, and on two days without a deadline. Miniature cameras were placed in the offices to discreetly record their facial physiology and expressions, as well as their movements throughout the workday. Participants’ sympathetic activation was measured every second by quantifying their perinasal perspiration levels.
By applying advanced data modeling to hundreds of hours of data recordings, the team found that they experience elevated sympathetic activation while working, which speaks to the challenging nature of the profession. Surprisingly, this stays pretty much the same with or without lead times.
The only factors found to exacerbate it were extensive smartphone use and prolific reading/writing. The first factor is a manifestation of gadget addiction trends that have altered human behaviors in general. The second is part of the research work and, therefore, it is inevitable.
Fortunately, the researchers seem to self-regulate their increased sympathetic activation by instinctively adjusting the frequency of physical pauses. It was observed that, on average, they take a physical break every two hours. On this basis, analysis of the data showed that for every 50% increase in sympathetic activation, the frequency of pauses nearly doubled, revealing the limits of cognitive work under increasing stress.
The naturalistic study not only provides new insights into the behaviors of researchers but also challenges some prevailing views on timelines. With recent advances in effective computing, this type of reporting is expected to proliferate across the board.