Study finds deadlines do not significantly increase sympathetic activation in researchers

The modern world of knowledge work is intertwined with deadlines. Whether it’s journalists submitting weekly columns, managers turning in monthly reports, or researchers submitting papers and proposals, deadlines are a constant. However, despite their prevalence, deadlines often evoke negative emotions and are seen as stressful events. As a result, there has been a recent trend to eliminate deadlines whenever possible. But some argue that deadlines are necessary, as they motivate people to take action.

A team of researchers from the University of Houston, Texas A&M, and the Polytechnic of Milano sought to answer the question at the heart of this debate: “Does knowledge work near deadlines create a higher level of physiological stress compared to work done away from deadlines?” The researchers focused on sympathetic activation, the state of physiological arousal that indicates how much stress a person is experiencing. This state should be monitored because it can cause negative health effects.

The first-of-its-kind study was published in the Proceedings of the ACM Human Factors in Computing and led by Ioannis Pavlidis, professor of computer science and director of the Affective and Data Computing Laboratory at UH.

Ten researchers consented to being monitored while working in the office two days before a critical deadline and two other days without a deadline. Miniature cameras were placed in the office to capture the researchers’ facial expressions, movements, and perspiration levels. Sympathetic activation was measured every second through quantification of perinasal perspiration.

The team analyzed hundreds of hours of data recordings and found that researchers experience high levels of sympathetic activation while working, regardless of whether there is a deadline or not. However, the study did reveal that extensive smartphone use and prolific reading and writing exacerbate sympathetic activation. The researchers found that researchers auto-regulate their sympathetic activation by instinctively taking physical breaks every two hours. When stress levels increase, the break frequency nearly doubles, indicating the limits of cognitive work under increasing stress.

“This naturalistic study provides fresh insights into researchers’ behaviors and challenges some prevailing views about deadlines,” said Pavlidis. “With the recent advances in affective computing, I expect such naturalistic studies to proliferate across domains, challenging misconceptions we hold about a lot of things.” The study was published in the Extended Abstracts of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Source: University of Houston

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