How you type or move your mouse reveals more about you than you think

Replying to an e-mail quickly in the evening, finishing that tough report early in the morning and going home quickly to pick up the children, many Dutch people experience stress because of their work. It is important to detect work stress as soon as possible, before it leads to a burnout, for example. Swiss researchers have now found a solution.

In the Netherlands, 1.2 million employees say they experience burnout complaints. Work stress is the cause of more than a third of all absenteeism due to illness. In 2018, this cost more than 3 billion euros, according to Trimbos figures. Many people do not realize that the pressure is getting too high. They muddle on until it’s too late. That is why it is so important to detect work stress early.

Stressed clicking around
Researchers of the ETH Zurich have developed a handy tool to determine the stress level of an employee in the workplace by looking at the way he types and clicks with the mouse. “How we type and move our mouse seems to be a better predictor of how stressed we feel in the office than our heart rate,” said researcher Mara Nägelin. She hopes that in the future work stress will be noticed earlier and prevented.

In an experiment, the Swiss proved that stressed people type and move their mouse differently than relaxed employees. “People who are stressed move their mouse more often and less precisely. The mouse pointer also travels longer distances on the screen. Laid-back people take shorter, more direct routes to get to the right spot on the screen. They also take more time for that,” says Nägelin. But there’s more: people who feel stressed in the office make more typos. They type in fits and starts and with many short pauses. Relaxed people take fewer, but longer, breaks when typing.

Poor motor skills
“The differences in typing and clicking are not necessarily very noticeable,” says Nägelin. “In our study we also did not try to find statistically significant differences, because previous studies had little success with this. But our results have shown that the differences in clicking and typing behavior are large enough for a machine learning model to derive the stress levels of the participants.”

There’s a simple theory that explains why we type and click differently when we’re stressed. “Stress has a negative impact on the brain’s ability to process information. As a result, our motor skills also deteriorate,” says co-researcher Jasmine Kerr.

Just disturb
Together with Nägelin, she observed ninety participants who had to perform all kinds of office tasks in a lab, such as scheduling appointments and analyzing data. They recorded the typing and clicking behavior of the participants and their heart rate. In addition, they also asked the participants several times during the experiment to indicate how stressed they felt. “All participants performed the same office tasks during the experiment, even when they were not stressed. In this way we tried to imitate the reality of work as much as possible,” says Nägelin.

However, for some, the experiment was made a little more difficult. They also had to conduct a job interview in between. In addition, half of this group was also repeatedly disturbed by chat messages. The control group could not laze around like in many other studies, but had to perform the same office tasks, only without all the interruptions.

Better than heartbeat
The results were above expectations. “We were surprised that how the participants typed and moved their mouse was a better predictor of how stressed they were than their heart rate,” says Nägelin. “Models that were only trained to measure heart rate actually performed worse than the models that worked with the mouse and keyboard data. Theoretically, heart rate is a more direct link to the stress response than behavioral data. One possible explanation is that the sympathetic nervous system was already activated by normal office work, even when the participants were not stressed, and that the stressors we added in our experiment were relatively mild compared to other studies.”

The researchers are currently testing their model with Swiss employees who have given permission for their mouse and typing behavior to be recorded. Their heart rate is also tracked in an app, which also regularly asks them how stressed they feel. Measuring stress in this way is not so obvious. “The only way people will accept our technology is if we can guarantee that we anonymize and protect their data. We want to help employees detect stress early, not create a tool for companies to monitor their workforce,” says Kerr.

Test yourself
Can people now test for themselves how stressed they are? Not with this method, thinks Nägelin. “I still think the easiest way right now is to take a break from work and reflect on how stressed you feel. The problem is that we as humans are not very good at being constantly aware of our stress level and monitoring it over long periods of time. We only notice that we are stressed when the negative effects on our psychological and physical health are already noticeable. The aim of our stress registration system is therefore to provide continuous objective feedback and thus function as a warning system for chronic stress.”

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