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Defining workload and why it is important to measure it
What is workload, why does it matter and how do we measure it? Workload is commonly defined in terms of the demands required to complete a task and the ability of an individual to meet those demands.1 Workload increases as task demand increases relative to the finite mental and physical resources an individual has at their disposal to fulfil a task. Overload occurs when the task demand exceeds an individual’s resources. In the clinical context, high workload can increase stress for the clinician and can precipitate errors in action and decision-making, with obvious consequences for patient safety.2 3 Poorly designed clinical work environments and equipment interfaces can also substantially increase workload, and long-term stress due to high workload can lead to burnout for healthcare personnel.4–6 A better understanding of excess workload and when and how it occurs is therefore important for the quality of life of healthcare staff, the design of clinical procedures and equipment and, ultimately, for the safety of patients. However, it is clear that observable behaviours can only be a proxy measure for total workload since a substantial part of most forms of human work also involves mental activity, which cannot be directly observed. Our propensity to prefer objective or observable measures of phenomena comes from the physical sciences where the physical or chemical processes under study do not involve mental aspects. This preference for the objective was also evident during the heyday of behaviourism, only a few decades ago, where mental phenomena were shunned as a subject of scientific inquiry simply because of the difficulties involved in measuring them.7 Accessing mental events typically required subjective self-report, and such subjective measures were not considered scientific at the time.
The systematic review paper by Almghairbi et al 8 in this issue of the Journal …
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