NSF awards $2M for researchers on trail of peak productivity

Work schedules that disrupt our natural circadian rhythms come with consequences.

Around 20 percent of employees perform shift work – rotating or nontraditional work hours – and these schedules have been linked to health problems including heart disease, diabetes and depression. Tired workers are more likely to be distracted, inefficient and prone to error. For workers such as medical clinicians or truck drivers, minor mistakes can be deadly.

Tanzeem Choudhury, associate professor of information science, and colleagues at Rice University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, were recently awarded a four-year, $2 million National Science Foundation grant to explore how measuring people’s biological clocks can help improve their performance or lower their stress.

Tanzeem Choudhury

“We want to look at how we can augment and enhance people’s alertness and ability to perform tasks,” Choudhury said. “Are there peak periods when they can focus on things that are more cognitively demanding than others, and can we align people’s task performance with their biological rhythm?”

Choudhury and her team are developing tools that can monitor biological clocks unobtrusively, through devices such as smartphones and smartwatches. That information could be put to use to make people healthier, less anxious and more productive.

The project builds on previous work in Choudhury’s People-Aware Computing Lab, including smartphone based tools that calculate alertness by photographing the size of your pupils, or measure your sleep and behavior to determine whether your sleep aligns with your biological clock.

“There are rhythms during the day, there are ebbs and flows that we are trying to track using these kinds of sensing devices,” she said. “And then once you’re able to understand a person’s rhythm, there are different ways to intervene.”

Possibilities for interventions range widely, depending on the type of work someone is performing. In the trucking industry, scheduling drivers who are naturally morning people to drive early shifts, and those who tend to stay up late to drive at night, could both improve truckers’ health and reduce accidents.

Office workers might take steps to limit distractions during periods of peak alertness, such as reducing email notifications. They could schedule rote tasks requiring less focus during the periods when they’re less cognitively alert.

Members of the team are also exploring ways to offer subtle interventions when people are feeling anxious or distracted. Exposing them to light when they are less alert, for instance, or using a smartwatch to deliver relaxing vibrations when it senses stress, could potentially help people feel or perform better, Choudhury said.

“If people have a lot of tasks they need to complete and they’re not really aligned with their rhythms, they’re not functioning at their optimal level,” she said.

The NSF awarded a total of $25 million for 26 projects as part of its Future of Work – Human Technology Frontier initiative, which aims to respond to the challenges and opportunities of a changing workforce. Choudhury will receive $590,000 for her portion of the project.

Choudhury said that to address privacy issues, all the tools she and her students are developing have been made available only to individuals through their own devices. More widespread use would need to be implemented thoughtfully and carefully to protect an employee’s privacy and autonomy.

“It would have to be used in specific contexts that are beneficial both to employer and employee,” she said. Biological rhythm “disruptions are causing problems at an individual and societal level, and interventions can be structured in a way that is beneficial to everyone.”

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Jeff Tyson