Predicting workplace stress using technology

(Image credit: Image credit: Pixabay)

Stress is a common problem in the workplace, but better business strategies and employee-friendly workflows can ensure productivity is maintained while employees are less stressed. 

About the authors

Navin Natoewal, Head of Integrated Technology Solutions at Philips Intellectual Property and Standards and Professor Dr. Eco de Geus, Head of the department of Biological Psychology at Vrije University, Amsterdam

How real an issue is workplace stress today?

Dr. Eco de Geus: Stress is not just a buzzword in the workplace. According to the World Health Organisation, stress is “the health epidemic of the 21st Century,” with stress-related health conditions forming a major public health burden and topping the dialogue of global health and public sector leaders. Modern life brings many stresses – from macro-economic, environmental and safety concerns, to everyday financial, career, caregiving, relationship, and health worries. 

Add to this the impact of our fast-paced 24-hour global cycle, the pressure to be ‘always-on’ for work in an increasingly connected society, long time periods in front of business PCs, and the need to balance work with other life demands, and you have the key ingredients for a workplace stress epidemic. This can manifest itself along a spectrum – from long-term chronic stress that can manifest as “burn-out” to short-term daily stressors which can have a more immediate impact on one’s ability to work. 

Navin Natoewal: Although the term stress for most people has a negative connotation, physiologically and psychologically, people need a certain level of “stress” to function properly. Practically everything can act as a stressor, from physical events (such as physical activity, drugs, alcohol, food intake, etc.) to psychological triggers (such as emotions, mental activity, social interactions). Each of these events or triggers result - regardless of the source of the stressor - in physiological and hormonal effects that can lead to a reduced cognitive performance.

What role can EmoGraphy play in helping both detect and track stressed workers?

NN: People generally are seeking a better work-life balance and looking to lead healthier lives. In doing so, they are becoming increasingly aware of how stress is affecting their lives. Philips’ EmoGraphy can help workers better understand stress triggers and their impact on daily stress levels and cognitive functioning of the brain. Thereby empowering them to better manage their daily stress and maintain a balanced lifestyle. It also considers both emotional and physical stress and can predict changes in cognitive performance (increases and decreases). 

The technology makes users aware of their ‘optimal emotional state’ and predicts their cognitive performance up to an hour ahead by calculating the accumulated levels of cortisol. Cortisol is widely regarded as the stress hormone. Philips’ EmoGraphy uses skin conductance to model stress. Being able to predict cognitive performance, EmoGraphy allows users to maintain their optimal performance by taking steps to stay out of the ‘bad zones’ that can negatively impact productivity. This awareness empowers users to recognise their stress level and so better understand and cope with stress. 

EdG: Our research team at the Vrije Universiteit tested whether EmoGraphy correctly measures activity of the sympathetic nervous system. This system activates what is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response that accompanies the feeling of stress during daily life. With its skin conductance-based measurement, we concluded that EmoGraphy from a wrist-worn wearable is a valid index of sympathetic nervous system activity caused by both mental and social stressors. 

Interestingly, it also captured perceived stress better than our heart rate-based measures. A further attractive aspect of Emography for work stress research from a practical point of view is that it can be worn continuously and comfortably, allowing stress-monitoring across periods of weeks to months. 

How does EmoGraphy look to help address issues with workplace stress?

EdG: Our ultimate validation of daily-life stress responses is in their prediction of the detrimental health outcomes that a stressful workplace or work life can have. Here, EmoGraphy can play an important role in employee monitoring, particularly when we can link the data to contextual factors of the workplace and to indicators of physical and mental health over time. This information could help both employees and employers to better combat the sources of workplace stress. 

NN: For example, by being made aware of workers’ stress levels – at an aggregate level to help mitigate privacy concerns – employers can adjust working patterns or the workplace environment which can in turn increase worker engagement, ensure more effective outcomes.

How did you develop the algorithms used in EmoGraphy?

NN: Philips recognised the health risks associated with stress early on. Being active already with technologies to track vital signs and health metrics, we worked directly with users to understand what insights could help them better track and manage their daily stress. From those co-creation sessions, we learned that consumers wanted to be more aware of when their cognitive performance is optimal and when it is advisable to either take a break, if possible, or change the type of work they’re doing. 

Creative scientists at Philips had already found a way to model cortisol levels from skin conductance signals, and with our mission to improve the lives of people in mind, we set to bring this technology to market. In doing so, we have been able to gather and translate physiological measurements into meaningful information regarding stress level, and also CognitiveZone – that indicates a person’s current cognitive ability and in addition to this, predicts where it will be in the next hour.

How do you ensure being monitored for stress does not become a stressful experience in itself?

EdG: There are two issues at play when it comes to monitoring stress. First, we need to reduce the burden on participants by making health monitoring as unobtrusive as possible. We know that wrist-watch based sensors are highly accepted by users, but future developments will likely expand the sensor toolkit with electrodes engrained in clothing, extensions of wrist-worn biosensors, steroids in hair samples, and skin patches detecting changes in the composition of bio-fluids, such as sweat. 

What technology companies need to do as they innovate going forward is find a balance between capturing data accurately and doing it in a way that is increasingly non-invasive - whilst also respecting privacy when permission is not given. 

The second issue lies in the format in which the information about stress responses is reported back to the user of the wearable technology. The ‘stress of stress-monitoring’ will critically depend on how personalised information on a person’s stress profile is shared with them. Stress profiles should provide accessible and meaningful feedback to participants or useful guidelines for coaches and healthcare professionals to prioritise when, where, and how to intervene when stress levels are outside a zone of optimal emotional arousal. Interfaces and visualisation tools that are feasible, validated by intended users, and user-friendly are critical here. 

Furthermore, connecting wearables like EmoGraphy to tailored health interventions with real-time feedback, and systems that select, tailor, and then send relevant health messages to users based on their personal data, will enhance a positive user experience. By providing real-time feedback, this provides support precisely when it is needed and only when it is needed. 

NN: At the same time, working with psychologists experienced in coaching, we learned that the amount of feedback given throughout the day should be limited, for the exact reason that feedback itself becomes a stressor. For our coaching approach, we primarily focus on daily, insightful summaries and only provide real-time feedback a couple of times a day. Ideally, when the output of EmoGraphy is integrated in smart, personal environments such as a car, living room or workspace, light, scent, and temperature can provide many opportunities to serve unobtrusively as stress relief moments. This is one example of what Eco referred to before as contextual factors.

Where do we go from here? Can we ever truly eliminate stress?

EdG: Medical professionals now label stress as a major intervention target. However, very little practical guidance is provided on how to track the fitness and monitor the stress levels of a given user in daily life, or when such stress levels should be considered detrimental. If we seek to reduce daily-life stress, a paradigm shift in stress research is needed. Although prior stress physiology research has been informative, these lab-based studies suffer from poor validity as they use artificial stressors in subjects volunteering to be exposed for relatively brief periods of time. 

NN: Philips recognizes and anticipates the growing demands of the health and wellness-conscious consumer, and those of the companies developing health tech products for them. We make technologies such as EmoGraphy and VitalSigns Optical (Philips’ leading wrist-based heart rate measurement technology) available for licensing in order to fulfil these needs, addressing a gap in the stress technology and wearables marketplace to more effectively guide consumers towards their optimal daily performance. In taking these steps now, Philips is setting the foundation for not only better stress tracking and management, but also for greater consumer empowerment and participation in their own health. 

EdG: Artificial laboratory stress on participants will often lack a sufficient intensity that is needed in order to trigger a full set of physiological and emotional stress responses that come into play when stress is experienced “for real,” as well as the full range of daily-life adaptive and maladaptive cognitive or behavioural responses like social withdrawal, lack of physical activity, and change in sleep, smoking or alcohol habits.  

We need to focus on the measurement of contextual factors and the multicomponent nature of stress (emotional, cognitive, physiological and behavioural). Being able to measure continuously through a comfortable wearable with the EmoGraphy technology on board is a good first step. Also, initiatives like the Stress-in-Action consortium are already dedicated to understanding daily life stress. Stress-in-Action aims to provide the scientific framework for understanding daily-life stress, which in turn can enable the development of personalised monitoring and intervention strategies to make people more stress-resilient and reduce stress-related health loss.

What immediate steps should businesses take in order to safeguard their employees from stress?

NN: The impact of stress should be a wake-up call to businesses. Over 12 million days are lost a year because of stress at work. With people spending such a high percentage of their lives in the workplace, the opportunity for employers to help maintain overall health and wellbeing is high. 

EdG: A key component to all behavioural change in employees is the motivation to change, and that motivation, in turn, critically depends on awareness. The immediate step to be taken therefore is to enhance the awareness of stress responses, and the context in which they seem to occur for a specific individual. By introducing mindful initiatives for example, sessions that put the employee at the centre, businesses can help improve workplace stress through recognition and management. In raising awareness, businesses are empowering their employees to take meaningful action – meaning a higher-level wellbeing can be maintained. 

NN: Data too has a key role to play in understanding workplace stress levels, but only if employee privacy concerns are fully considered and addressed. By gaining better insights into employees using technologies such as Philips’ EmoGraphy and collating these profiles to gain a wider reflection of the workforce, businesses can make informed decisions at an organizational level to help safeguard employees from stress in the future. 

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Navin Natoewal

Navin Natoewal is the Head of Integrated Technology Solutions at Philips Intellectual Property and Standards. He is a business leader with extensive experience in innovation and bringing new products & services to market. Currently he is the P&L owner and end2end responsible for innovation, development, marketing and sales for a portfolio of software solutions. Navin has a strong track record of translating technological innovations in winning commercial propositions. He built current organization from nothing to its current team size and revenue.