By John Salak –
The office, remote or otherwise, has always presented its challenges. The workplace might even resemble a battlefield where wounds might be less bloody but just as deep as some war scars.
Separate research cast new light on the troubling encounters and consequences experienced in the office, underscoring how certain people get ahead, how others are left behind and some begin to fry out from stress.
Washington State University reported how gossip (positive or negative) influences whether a person advances or is left behind. The research went as far as to underscore the power of how gossip affects the workplace, whether it is dished in America, India and “even a remote village in Africa.”
The anthropologists reported that their experiments showed that positive and negative gossip influenced whether participants were willing to give a person a resource, such as a raise or a family heirloom, especially when the gossip was specific to the circumstance. They specifically cited positive gossip concerning job-related behavior, such as saying the person worked well under pressure as increasing the chance of someone getting a work-related benefit, compared to gossip about family relationships.
The University’s experiment focused on 120 online participants workers in the U.S. and India, and after making some culturally appropriate adjustments, on 160 Ngandu horticulturalists who make a living from small gardens in the Central African Republic. The findings were similar in all three groups.
“Gossip seems context relevant. People don’t just say random things,” reported study lead author Nicole Hess, a WSU anthropologist. “Gossip was relevant to the exchange, and the relationship had the most impact on whether a person gave a resource or not.”
Gossip in this study was defined as exchanging reputational information with others. It is a feature of almost every human society, but the researchers noted it is less clear what function it serves. Some argue that talking about others this way helps enforce social norms or serves as social bonding between the gossipers. The Washington State study came to a different conclusion. It maintains that gossip has a competitive element because there is a direct relationship between spreading reputational information and whether those in question receive benefits.
“Until this study, no one had even asked, ‘What is the result of gossip?’ Gossip makes a person’s reputation worse or better, so what is the result?” Hess said. “These findings support the competitive evolutionary model: that people are using gossip to compete with each other over valuable resources in their communities.”
Gossip isn’t the only unrealized workplace influence on advancement and productivity. Swiss researchers note that one in three employees suffer from workplace stress and that many don’t realize it until their mental and physical resources have dwindled to dangerously low levels.
A research team at ETH Zurich is attempting to tackle this danger by developing an early warning system that identifies stress levels from how an individual uses their mouse.
“How we type on our keyboard and move our mouse seems to be a better predictor of how stressed we feel in an office environment than our heart rate,” explained study author Mara Nägelin, a mathematician at ETH Zurich. Correctly identifying and applying these signals could open a pathway to prevent or lessen workplace stress, she added.
ETH researchers proved that stressed-out workers type and move their mice differently from relaxed people. “People who are stressed move the mouse pointer more often and less precisely and cover longer distances on the screen. Relaxed people, on the other hand, take shorter, more direct routes to reach their destination and take more time doing so,” Nägelin says.
The difference not only reflects greater stress but also usually corresponds to more mistakes and lower productivity.
“Increased levels of stress negatively impact our brain’s ability to process information. This also affects our motor skills,” explained study coauthor Jasmine Kerr, a psychologist.
The Swiss researchers concluded after observing 90 participants performing office tasks in a lab as close to reality as possible. The team recorded the participants’ mouse and keyboard behavior and their heart rates. In the process, the researchers repeatedly asked the participants how stressed they felt.
“We were surprised that typing and mouse behavior was a better predictor of how stressed subjects felt better than heart rate,” Nägelin says.
The stress detection system may be positive in the long run but faces some acceptance issues. “The only way people will accept and use our technology is if we can guarantee that we will anonymize and protect their data. We want to help workers identify stress early, not create a monitoring tool for companies,” Kerr explained.
Otherwise, the detection system ironically might create more workplace stress.