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Deadlines don’t affect stress levels, new study shows

A first-of-its-kind study suggests stress levels stay the same with or without deadlines

A new study challenges the necessity of deadlines. (Pexels)
A new study challenges the necessity of deadlines. (Pexels)

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With a renewed focus on stress and increasing talk about burnout, more people are questioning the necessity of deadlines and whether they help motivate people to act. A new study shows that the stress levels of knowledge workers, such as researchers or journalists, stay the same with or without deadlines.

Deadlines often bring with them negative feelings and are perceived as an added challenge in stressful environments. Recently, there has been a trend to not meet deadlines where possible. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States introduced no-deadline submissions in some of its funding programmes. To better understand whether deadlines help, in the first-of-its-kind study, researchers from the University of Houston (UH), Texas A&M, and the Polytechnic of Milano explored if knowledge work near deadlines incurs a higher sympathetic load than knowledge work away from deadlines, according to the UH’s press statement.

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The study, published in the Proceedings of the ACM Human Factors in Computing, was led by Ioannis Pavlidis, professor of computer science and director of the Affective and Data Computing Laboratory at UH. According to the statement, sympathetic activation is the state of physiological arousal that indicates how much people are "on the tips of their toes" and often leads to stress. This is why intensity and duration should be kept in check, according to the researchers.

For the study, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, 10 consenting researchers were monitored as they worked with a deadline for two days and two other days without an impeding deadline. Their sympathetic activation was measured every second through quantification of their imaged perinasal perspiration levels, according to the statement.

The findings showed that the researchers experienced high sympathetic activation while working, showing the challenging nature of the profession. However, the high sympathetic activation was the same with or without deadlines.

The only factors found to increase sympathetic activation were extensive smartphone use and prolific reading or writing. However, researchers seemed to auto-regulate increases in their sympathetic activation by instinctively adjusting the frequency of breaks. On average, researchers take a physical break every two hours.

"Our naturalistic study not only brings fresh insights into researchers’ behaviours but also challenges some prevailing views about deadlines", Pavlidis said. "With the recent advances in affective computing, I expect such naturalistic studies to proliferate across domains, challenging misconceptions we hold about a lot of things," added Pavlidis in the statement.

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