• Ten researchers were followed on work days with and without a deadline
  • Reading, writing and smartphone use exacerbated sympathetic activation
  • Increases in sympathetic activation also increased the frequency of breaks

Ever felt so stressed at work when a deadline is fast approaching? It turns out, it's not the deadline that's to blame, a new study has found. The stress levels will be the same, whether there's a deadline or not.

Anyone who has had to work with a set deadline knows how stressful it can be to get things done on time. But is it really the presence of a deadline that increases one's stress levels?

In a new study, which was published in Proceedings of the ACM Human Factors in Computing, a team of researchers looked at whether deadlines really trigger higher sympathetic load. Sympathetic activation is said to be the state that indicates how much someone is "on the tips of their toes," the University of Houston (UH) explained.

"In knowledge work at large, sympathetic activation is related with cognitive workload," the researchers wrote. "In deadline-driven knowledge work in particular, time pressure, which is a well-known stressor, may also contribute to sympathetic activation."

Sympathetic overactivity, the researchers said, could lead to mental fatigue and stress.

For the study, the researchers focused on the work in scholarly research. As they noted, "not all deadlines are the same" and such research deadlines are "characterized by strong competition and significant career stakes."

The researchers conducted the study involving 10 deskbound researchers. They were monitored while working for two days while approaching a deadline, and for two days when they were not working toward a deadline. The study authors had exclusion/inclusion criteria to make sure all the participating researchers took the deadlines seriously.

Cameras were placed to monitor factors like their movements and expressions, and their sympathetic activation was also tracked using thermal facial videos of participants to determine perinasal perspiration levels.

Indeed, it was found that the participants had high levels of sympathetic activation. However, the levels were just about the same whether they were working days before a deadline or not. In a way, this shows just how challenging research work really is.

"Using a metaphor, if you are under heavy rain all the time, if one day the rain is a little heavier, it would not make much difference to you because you are already wet to the bone. This is what our models show with respect to the effect of deadlines on researchers," study lead Ioannis Pavlidis of UH said in the university release.

In particular, research tasks of reading and writing reportedly exacerbated sympathetic activation.

"Irrespective of deadlines, the researchers' sympathetic activation is strongly associated with the amount of reading and writing they do," the researchers wrote.

Interestingly, however, smartphone use and frequency of breaks were also found to be associated with sympathetic activation.

"The smartphone use result complements recent reports in the literature that associate smartphone use with stress levels," the researchers said. "The physical break result likely points to a natural coping mechanism of sympathetic overactivity in deskbound work."

In the case of taking breaks, the frequency appears to nearly double for every 50% increase in sympathetic activity, UH noted.

But all these three factors were "independent" of whether they were facing a deadline or not.

Overall, the results are quite interesting as they appear to be challenging some ideas we have about deadlines being triggers of stress, according to Pavlidis. It's possible, the researchers said, that the retrospective negative ideas we have about deadlines "may be colored by memory bias."

In addition, it also provides some interesting insights, for instance about how taking breaks tends to be a coping mechanism to stress in deskbound work.

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