The eyes are the window to the soul, and it also turns out, a key to identifying how stressed out you are. A study led by Dr. Jung Hyup Kim and a team of researchers shows that pupil dilation could be used to indicate the mental workload of a person in a multi-tasking environment.

I sat down with Dr. Kim to talk about his research and understand how this finding can give a better insight into how systems should be designed to avoid mentally overloading workers and build a safer working environment.

Question: What prompted this line of study, and how did you make the connection between someone's pupil size and the level of stress that they are experiencing?

Dr. Jung Hyup Kim: Although there are many workload measurement tools, most are carried out in an intrusive way. To overcome these disruptions, various physiological measures have been used to assess workload. Among these measures, pupil response has been identified as one of the effective workload indicators that can be measured less intrusively, and without disrupting a worker's ongoing activities. Previous studies have shown various relationships between workload and pupil response in the context of information searching, however, the physiological measures for assessing workload in a multitasking environment through pupil dilation are not well studied.

Question: How do you envision this research helping the business world? There seems to be an obvious connection to the manufacturing world.

Dr. Jung Hyup Kim: The results of this research will give a better insight into how tasks should be designed to avoid mentally overloading workers and build a safer working environment. The findings from this study will give workers a tool to determine the maximum stress level a person can experience before they become fatigued, and their performance begins to negatively change. Also, this research would be beneficial for future workstation design.

Question: Do you think companies will want to know how tired or exhausted their employees really are? Do you think this data could be overwhelming given the reality of our fast-paced and over-worked way of operating?

Dr. Jung Hyup Kim: Recently, many workers have been exposed to high levels of mental demands caused by multitasking. To make their working environments safer, it is necessary to understand how workers become mentally overloaded and exhausted during their tasks.

Question: I see this also helping organizations supporting optimal performance but it would also have to go hand in hand with more autonomy, meaning people would need to be able to take a nap at work. Have you thought through the logistics of how this data could shift how people work?

Dr. Jung Hyup Kim: There is a trade-off between a safer working environment and productivity. For that reason, it is important to develop a reliable method to measure the early markers of adverse health effects in order to reduce the risks of occupational hazards. Unfortunately, workers can often express overconfidence about their performance, and they cannot accurately evaluate how fatigued they are by themselves.

Question: How user-friendly is the device and how expensive?

Dr. Jung Hyup Kim:  Right now, the tool is designed for research and is operated in a lab setting. In the future, we would like to develop a user-friendly portable eye-tracking device.

Question: What is next in your research plan?

Dr. Jung Hyup Kim:  In the future, I would like to develop an algorism that measures a worker's workload by using a user-friendly portable eye-tracking device. Therefore, the study results will be implemented beyond the research lab. Also, I would like to test people with low visibility, different age groups, and those that depend on wearing glasses to consider the potential and unintended consequences of pupil response in these different groups of people.