Health: Stress can be measured by patterns in keyboard use

Hacking around frantically on the keyboard and sending the cursor long distances with the computer mouse - that can be a sign of stress in everyday work.

Health: Stress can be measured by patterns in keyboard use

Hacking around frantically on the keyboard and sending the cursor long distances with the computer mouse - that can be a sign of stress in everyday work. According to a Swiss study, typing on the keyboard and moving a mouse can indicate how stressed a person feels better than the heart rate, which is otherwise measured to detect stress. The mathematicians Mara Nagelin and colleagues from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich present their results in the specialist journal "Cell".

"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, reach their destination via shorter, more direct routes and take more time," says Nagelin. Stressed people made more typing errors and wrote more choppyly, with many short pauses. Relaxed people took fewer but longer breaks from writing. How can the connection between stress and typing and mouse behavior be explained? "Increased stress negatively affects our brain's ability to process information. This also affects our motor skills," said psychologist and co-author Jasmine Kerr (also ETH).

The psychiatrist and stress researcher Mazda Adli, chief physician at the Fliedner Klinik Berlin, described the study's methodology as groundbreaking. "This is an interesting approach to examining individual susceptibility to stress," he told the German Press Agency. "In the future, you could use the method to examine how susceptible you are to stress and disruption under certain external conditions, then change something in the environment and see whether your susceptibility to stress has changed." He was not involved in the study.

How did the experiment in the laboratory look like?

Mouse and keyboard behavior as well as heart rates of 90 people were recorded. All completed realistic office tasks in the laboratory. Some remained undisturbed, others went through an additional job interview or constantly received new chat messages. The scientists used machine learning and asked people how they felt about stress. "We were surprised that typing and mouse behavior is a better predictor of how stressed subjects feel than heart rate," says Nagelin.

In everyday work, many people felt distracted by constant new e-mails, chat messages or phone calls, said Adli. "Distractibility triggers stress." Then it makes sense to shield yourself from disturbing stimuli: only read e-mails every two hours, signal if you don't want to be disturbed, or take regular breaks. Adli emphasizes that not all stress is negative. A public lecture or competition can create a stress peak that can be stimulating and make for good performance or even a comfortable feeling. It becomes problematic when stress peaks do not subside and those affected can no longer recover from them.

Can this study help in everyday work?

Whether it makes sense to recognize stress in the workplace according to the ETH model, for example to prevent damage to health, is a tricky question. "We want to help workers identify stress early, not create a monitoring tool for companies," Kerr said. Adli can imagine using it more for its own assessment. From an occupational medical point of view, an application would only be conceivable if absolute anonymity was maintained, says Adli.

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