Measuring surgeons' mental workload with a time-based secondary task

Russell C. Grant, C. Melody Carswell, Cindy H. Lio, W. Brent Seales

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The use of secondary task performance to assess mental workload in a primary task is appealing because the method clearly reflects a central goal of workload assessment - to determine what other functions an operator can undertake while satisfactorily performing the ongoing (primary) technical challenges of a job. For example, does a surgeon performing a suturing task have the cognitive reserves to maintain situation awareness, deal with unanticipated events, or coordinate the efforts of other team members? Unfortunately, secondary task measures have a reputation for being intrusive, artificial, and difficult to use. In the current article, we describe procedures to minimize these concerns, specifically when using an interval production secondary task. Although our suggestions for implementing interval production are based on experience in surgical training environments, the method is grounded in workload assessment research from a variety of other contexts over the past two decades. The methodology appears to be highly adaptable.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-11
Number of pages5
JournalErgonomics in Design
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by STITCH (Surgical Technology Integration with Tools for Cognitive Human Factors), funded by Department of Defense TATRC Grant W81XWH-06-1-0761. The authors call special attention to the numerous contributions of the late Duncan Clarke to the research program described above. Clarke, who held a PhD in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania, directed software development and interdisciplinary project integration for the STITCH project. He was a faculty researcher at the University of Kentucky Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments and principal of Fremont Associates, Camden, South Carolina. Finally, the authors thank Matt Field for his creative solutions to a host of procedural and technical challenges.


  • interval production
  • mental workload
  • secondary tasks
  • surgery
  • surgical training
  • time perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Engineering (all)


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