Typing and mouse clicking can show your work stress

"People who are stressed move the mouse pointer more often and less precisely and cover longer distances on the screen." They make more typing mistakes, too, says Mara Nägelin. (Credit: Getty Images)

Using new data and machine learning, researchers have developed a model that can tell how stressed we are at work just from the way we type and use our computer mouse, a new study shows.

In Switzerland, one in three employees suffers from workplace stress. Those affected often don’t realize that their physical and mental resources are dwindling until it’s too late. This makes it all the more important to identify stress as early as possible where it arises: in the workplace.

“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,” says study coauthor Mara Nägelin, a mathematician who conducts research at the chair of technology marketing and the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich.

Applied correctly, these findings could be used in the future to prevent increased work stress early on.

Work stress seen in typing mistakes

The researchers proved in an experiment that stressed people type and move their mouse differently from relaxed people.

“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 says.

What’s more, people who feel stressed in the office make more mistakes when typing. They write in fits and starts with many brief pauses. Relaxed people take fewer but longer pauses when typing on a keyboard.

The connection between stress and our typing and mouse behavior can be explained with what is known as neuromotor noise theory.

“Increased levels of stress negatively impact our brain’s ability to process information. This also affects our motor skills,” says psychologist Jasmine Kerr, who researches with Nägelin and is a coauthor of the study.

Mouse movement beats heart rate

To develop their stress model, the researchers observed 90 study participants in the lab performing office tasks that were as close to reality as possible, such as planning appointments or recording and analyzing data. They recorded the participants’ mouse and keyboard behavior as well as their heart rates. In addition, the researchers asked the participants several times during the experiment how stressed they felt.

While some participants were allowed to work undisturbed, others also had to take part in a job interview. Half of this group were also repeatedly interrupted with chat messages. In contrast to earlier studies by other scientists, where the control group often did not have to solve any tasks at all and could relax, in the new experiment, all participants had to perform the 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.

She explains that this is because the heart rates of the participants in the two groups did not differ as much as in other studies. One possible reason is that the control group was also given activities to perform, which is more in line with workplace reality.

The researchers are currently testing their model with data from Swiss employees who have agreed to have their mouse and keyboard behavior as well as their heart data recorded directly at their workplace using an app. The same app also regularly asks the employees about their subjective stress levels. Results should be available by the end of the year.

However, workplace stress detection also raises some thorny issues, the researchers say.

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

In another study involving employees and ethicists, the researchers are investigating which features an app needs to have to meet these requirements and ensure responsible handling of sensitive data.

The study appears in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics.

Source: Christoph Elhardt for ETH Zurich