I um therefore I ah: workplace stress and how to manage it

Tearing your hair out? You might be suffering from cognitive overload. BrittneyBush

Workers in high-pressure, safety-critical jobs – such as air traffic controllers or traffic incident operators – need high levels of concentration and focus to do their jobs effectively.

When concentration is lost, mistakes can be made and within moments, small mistakes can snowball into complete chaos.

But NICTA has developed a new web-based technology called BrainGauge that can be used to detect when a worker is reaching their cognitive limit, allowing their workload to be managed accordingly and mistakes to be avoided.

Information overload

Workers in stressful jobs are often required to monitor large volumes of information from a range of sources. At any particular time, a traffic incident operator might need to monitor:

  • Phone calls from the public
  • Information from the police force
  • Information from the ambulance service
  • Other stimuli within their immediate environment

In the case of a serious car crash, a traffic incident operator would need to make sense of all the information coming in and then make a number of decisions about the best course of action, all in a very short space of time.

In high-pressure environments such as these, human errors often occur because of “high cognitive load”: an operator’s working memory might be so overloaded with information they are no longer able to make the best decisions within the necessary timeframe.

So how does BrainGauge work?

Well, when an individual is “cognitively-overloaded”, their speech patterns begin to change. If they are “thinking hard”, their speech becomes fragmented, dotted with both silent and audible pauses – noises such as “er”, “ah” and “um”.

BrainGauge is a web-based service that detects speech elements such as these “ums” and “ahs”, as well as minute variations in speech that are imperceptible to the human ear.

While the BrainGauge software is monitoring a worker’s cognitive load, the shift supervisor can log in to BrainGauge and see how stressed each worker is.

So, what can be done if a worker is showing signs of cognitive overload?

For a start, any future tasks that were intended for that worker can be redirected to someone with lower cognitive load. Alternatively, less important tasks on the stressed worker’s plate can be put on hold by the system, allow the operator to focus on the situation at hand.

Stress is everywhere

All that’s needed to use this service is a microphone for capturing the user’s voice and an internet connection for sending the speech data to the BrainGauge servers for processing.

As a result, BrainGauge can be applied in any environment where people need to speak in order to complete their tasks. It’s perfect for air traffic and road traffic incident operators: they are talking all the time, exchanging information over the phone, on their radios and with the rest of their team.

BrainGauge technology has been used and tested in many high-stress situations including the transport management centre at the NSW Roads & Traffic Authority and the ambulance service in Ottawa, Canada.

Both services deal with incoming emergency calls from the public and have found the technology useful and efficient in managing the workload of workers.

Similarly, the technology can also be used in emergency contact centres, military and crisis control rooms, and even airplane cockpits.

Game-day stress

BrainGauge has also been used in training and learning. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was interested in this application of the technology, specifically in finding out when their athletes had become competent at a new skill.

During training, an athlete’s cognitive load was found to be very high, but when they got the hang of the discipline they were practising, their cognitive load returned to normal: they had learnt the skill and didn’t need to work as hard at using that skill.

In this way, BrainGauge has allowed the AIS to figure out exactly when an athlete has become proficient at a new skill and, as a result, when it is suitable to move them up to the next level in their training.

This application of BrainGauge can be used not only in online learning applications but also in gaming and entertainment, to monitor just how hard people are thinking, and adjust the system accordingly.