Deadlines Don’t Cut It: Stress Levels Remain Unaffected by Timelines

According to new research, deadlines may not be as stressful as previously thought. The study discovered that with or without deadlines, high sympathetic activation, which reflects how much people are “on the tips of their toes” and causes stress, remains roughly the same. The study also discovered that characteristics like frequent smartphone use and substantial reading and writing can amplify sympathetic activation.

Deadlines are an integral aspect of modern knowledge labour. Journalists must produce their weekly columns on time, managers must submit their monthly reports on time, and researchers must submit their papers and projects on time.

Despite their pervasiveness, deadlines elicit negative emotions and are seen as stressful events.

As a result, there has been a trend to eliminate deadlines whenever possible. In the United States, for example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) implemented no-deadline submissions in some of its funding programmes.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that, while deadlines are unpleasant, they are vital because they encourage individuals to act.

Researchers from the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, and the Polytechnic of Milano set out to answer the central question: “Does knowledge work near deadlines incur a higher sympathetic load than knowledge work away from deadlines?”

Sympathetic activation is a physiological arousal state that indicates how much people are “on the tips of their toes,” and it frequently leads to stress. According to the experts, this is why its strength and duration should be limited.

Ioannis Pavlidis, professor of computer science and director of the Affective and Data Computing Laboratory at UH, conducted the first-of-its-kind study, which was published in the Proceedings of the ACM Human Factors in Computing.

According to an institutionally authorised ethical protocol, 10 consenting researchers were observed working at the office in the two days preceding a critical deadline, as well as two other days without an impending deadline.

Miniature cameras were placed at the researchers’ university office to unobtrusively record their facial physiology and expressions, as well as their movements throughout the working day.

The participants’ sympathetic activation was measured every second through quantification of their imaged perinasal perspiration levels.

Applying advanced data modeling on hundreds of hours of data recordings, the team found that researchers experience high sympathetic activation while working, which speaks to the challenging nature of the research profession. Surprisingly, this high sympathetic activation remains about the same with or without deadlines.