Mental workload (MWL) is one of the most widely used concepts in ergonomics and human factors and represents a topic of increasing importance. Since modern technology in many working environments imposes ever more cognitive demands upon operators while physical demands diminish, understanding how MWL impinges on performance is increasingly critical. Yet, MWL is also one of the most nebulous concepts, with numerous definitions and dimensions associated with it. Moreover, MWL research has had a tendency to focus on complex, often safety-critical systems (e.g. transport, process control). Here we provide a general overview of the current state of affairs regarding the understanding, measurement and application of MWL in the design of complex systems over the last three decades. We conclude by discussing contemporary challenges for applied research, such as the interaction between cognitive workload and physical workload, and the quantification of workload 'redlines' which specify when operators are approaching or exceeding their performance tolerances.
Keywords: applications; attention; measurement; mental workload; resources.