Working at the stop

20. Juli 2023

According to surveys, around 65 percent of all people in Germany sometimes or often feel stressed. The most common reason for this is work. This is noticeable even in the way we type using a computer keyboard. Nadine Kakarot from MEDITÜV explains in this interview what distinguishes good from bad stress and how we can counteract chronic overload.


#explore: Ms. Kakarot, researchers at ETH Zurich have shown that stress can be measured from the way people use a computer mouse and keyboard. How did the experiment work in practice?

Nadine Kakarot: The ETH researchers got 90 people to do office work and recorded their mouse and keyboard behaviour while they did so, as well as measuring their heart rate variability (see box). Some of the test subjects were able to work undisturbed, while others were repeatedly interrupted by chat messages, for example. This second group tended to move their mouse pointer more often and less accurately and cover longer distances on the screen. They also made more mistakes when typing and wrote in short bursts, with lots of little pauses. The more relaxed subjects took fewer but longer breaks when writing and got their mouse where they wanted it to be more directly and by covering shorter distances.


How can we explain this?

The authors of the study interpret it like this: Increased stress has a negative impact on our brain's ability to process information. This also affects our motor skills. In fact, stress triggers the same physiological reaction as that experienced by our ancestors when they heard a sabre-toothed tiger rustling in the undergrowth: Cortisol is released to prime the muscles for flight, while other functions shut down. In this state, we are well set up to fight or run away but not necessarily to carry out fine motor activities in the office.



So stress wouldn’t be the best state in which to assemble a watch mechanism, for example?

It really depends on the type of stress. Since the 1970s, researchers have distinguished between positive eustress and negative distress. Positive stress is a state of alarm which is triggered to cope with acute crisis situations. All our senses become sharpened to solve the task at hand. We enter into a kind of tunnel, a flow in which we can surpass what we might otherwise be capable of and work in a very focused, efficient and precise way. The body unleashes some spectacular responses to allow us to perform at this kind of exceptional pitch: Our capacity to feel pain decreases and our immune system gets a boost, which is why we rarely get sick in the days leading up to a deadline. In the case of prolonged stress, the opposite becomes true: We become much more sensitive to pain and susceptible to illness, are often irritable and sleep poorly.


Measuring stress

There are different methods to measure a person’s stress level, which are often combined in scientific studies. These include skin resistance, laboratory values such as cortisol levels, questionnaires and what is known as heart rate variability: Contrary to what some people might assume, our heartbeat is not completely regular. When we are relaxed, our heart beats with a low variance in the millisecond range. In conditions of physical exertion or mental stress, the heartbeat becomes more regular, and the interval between beats decreases.

What kind of stress were the subjects exposed to in the study?

The study didn’t simulate long-term stress, but another form of negative stress: The stress caused by constant disturbance, the kind of thing we know all too well from working in offices. Researchers also cite what they call the sawtooth effect: No sooner have we got our head around a task and got into the flow of work than our concentration gets derailed by an urgent email. Then we have to put a lot of effort into getting back into the previous state of flow – only to be dragged out of it again after a short time. These fluctuations in our attention graphically resemble a saw blade, hence the name. Many people find the sawtooth effect gruelling because we humans are simply not made for multitasking. On balance, the task will take more time because we keep having to switch our attention back to it.


Are the patterns identified in the experiment suitable as an early warning system for stress for everyday work?

Equipping all offices with stress-measuring keyboards would certainly not be an option under labour and data protection law. After all, companies aren’t allowed to monitor their employees’ health data. As a personal early warning system, this sort of keyboard or even a standard smartwatch would definitely be an option. When people get used to chronic stress, they lose the ability to tune into their own stress level, which can in the worst case lead to burnout. However, despite all the physical indicators, stress manifests differently from person to person. That’s why we always consult employees in companies to establish what their personal stress warning signs are and how they feel during stressful periods. This allows such people to develop a better perception of their emotional states, to find ways to recognise stress at an early stage and counteract it.

So, what do I do? Reduce my stress or, ideally, avoid it completely?

The first question is always to ask if there is anything you can do about the work conditions that are causing your stress. Can you hand over certain tasks, cancel deadlines and prioritise your activities better overall? There will, of course, inevitably be periods when we have a higher workload. Then the question is what we need to cope well with stress. It’s important to sense your own needs and to try to find ways of balancing out your stress after work. If you’re restless and agitated, exercise can help you reduce your stress levels. If you’re exhausted, taking a bath might be a better choice than dragging your weary body to an exercise class just because you planned it that way in the morning. Smart stress management is based on the acute need to relax or recuperate.

What other methods are there to counteract stress?

Chronic stress often leads to depression, dissatisfaction and even depressive episodes. Here it can help to shift your focus from the stress burden to something positive. Before you go to bed, you might think about and note down three things that were good that day. These can also be small things, like a nice chat with the shop assistant in the bakery. If you practice this consistently for a few weeks, it can noticeably improve your mood.


What role does stress play in your work?

Stress is a big issue. In our risk assessment in the context of occupational health and safety, we look at whether working conditions are designed in such a way that they don’t result in chronic stress. We focus on possible conflicts in the department concerned. After all, conflicts always lead to stress and often have a systemic origin. Very often, they arise where structures and responsibilities are unclear. Not only that, but teams that frequently work under extreme time pressure are also more likely to get into conflicts. This is why we start by advising companies on the extent to which organisational structures can be changed to reduce stress factors. It’s only in the next step that individual consultations are held to find out how individual employees can deal better with stress and conflicts.