What really causes workplace stress? USC study aims at a more productive society

The multidisciplinary research team hopes to unlock the secrets to a healthier, happier and more productive work environment. (Illustration/iStock)


What really causes workplace stress? USC study aims at a more productive society

Shrikanth Narayanan leads a team focusing on sleep quality, self-assessed work performance and social interaction among Keck Medicine of USC nurses

October 10, 2017 Caitlin Dawson

To combat stress in the workplace, you first need to understand why it happens.

That’s the aim of a new study underway at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute, in collaboration with Keck Medicine of USC and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The multidisciplinary team, led by Shrikanth Narayanan, an ISI research director and professor of electrical engineering, hopes to unlock the secret to a healthier, happier and more productive work environment.

“We have an intuitive understanding of what makes us feel stressed or motivated at work, but the aim of this study is to understand it in a more quantitative, objective way,” said Narayanan, who uses technology to study human behavior.

Shri Narayanan and team at USC SAIL lab
Principal investigator Shrikanth Narayanan, center, at USC’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory with USC Viterbi students Brandon Booth, Tiantian Feng, Amrutha Nadarajan and Karel Mundnich, from left (USC Photo/Ben Paul)

ISI computer scientists will analyze sensor and self-assessment questionnaire data collected from 250 Keck Medicine of USC nurses, who will voluntarily participate in the study. The team will then work with behavioral psychologists, including USC Dornsife Professor Gayla Margolin, to analyze and interpret the results. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity has awarded a $12-million contract for the project, which will be spread across four years of research and development.

“This collaborative study brings the strengths of USC’s diverse research communities together to help study a problem in a real-world laboratory,” said Felipe Osorno, executive administrator at Keck Medicine of USC’s Value Improvement Office.

Psychological insights

During an initial 10-week health assessment scheduled for January, ISI researchers will collect a stream of data with the use of wearable sensors, cognitive assessments and daily surveys.

Numerous physical and emotional parameters will be tracked continuously, including sleep quality, self-assessed work performance and social interaction. Specifically, the researchers aim to better understand how stress and other factors impact how people feel and perform at work, particularly in challenging occupations such as nursing, where 12-hour shifts are the norm.

Using this data, we can see how your body actually responds to stressors in the environment.

Shrikanth Narayanan

“Using this data, we can see how your body actually responds to stressors in the environment,” said Narayanan, holder of the Niki & C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering. He also has joint appointments at USC Dornsife and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Demanding jobs

Keck Medicine of USC employs more than 4,000 people, including 1,300 nurses, who care for hundreds of patients every day.

“Nurses have an extremely demanding job,” Osorno said. “They work in a particularly complex environment, making hundreds of decisions and interacting with many groups of people to deliver care, including patients and their families, physicians and co-workers. It’s an opportunity for us to gain a solid understanding of how stress impacts job performance, which is especially critical in medicine.”

Although beyond the scope of this present study, the team hopes psychological insights gleaned from the data could eventually justify the implementation of positive workplace interventions that could lower stress and boost employee well-being and morale in numerous fields.

“We may not be able to solve every problem, but from what we learn, we can think about how to help people cope better, through on-the-spot interventions, such as taking a break after a stressful encounter or by informing the design of good workplace environments,” Narayanan said.

A positive impact on peers and patients

The ISI team is currently working with Keck Medicine of USC nurses and representatives to gather feedback that will influence the study’s design — for example, ensuring sensors are unobtrusive and do not disrupt the participants’ busy schedules.

Volunteers and partners at Keck Medicine of USC have welcomed the collaborative and participatory research approach, which includes regular meetings and focus groups.

“The nurses of Keck Medicine of USC are part of a dedicated group of clinicians working to prevent, treat and cure disease each day,” said Brooke Baldwin-Rodriguez, director of nursing at Keck Medicine of USC. “They are eager to participate in a study with the potential to positively impact the lives of their peers and patients.”

The team also emphasized the importance of participant privacy — job performance, self-assessments and all data collected in the study will be encrypted and anonymized to ensure confidentiality.