Using tech to track employee stress: Work wellbeing win?

Relieving worker stress helps people and business. Now, companies are looking to new tech to help measure, understand and remove strain on employees.

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mental health stress tracking

Chronic worker stress can mean myriad physical and mental health problems. In the US alone, business might lose up to 300 billion dollars from employee stress fallout, whether through absent days, unfinished work or missed meetings. And it’s common: A 2020 study of UK workers found 79 percent regularly experience work-related stress.

And as COVID-19 has brought health worries and childcare responsibilities for many, it’s brought more stress. A survey by mental healthcare provider Ginger found 7 in 10 in the US rate the pandemic as the most stressful time of their professional career. Lack of human contact is part of the problem, with a Kaspersky report finding 34 percent of remote workers miss seeing colleagues face-to-face.

Tech that measures stress

What can employers do to help their workers with stress? A growing number of tech companies are offering ways businesses can better understand stress among staff, sometimes called ‘welltech.’ And as varied as potential sources of stress are, tech to evaluate it come in all shapes.

Companies like Noldus FaceReader and iMotions use facial recognition to analyze expressions in the workplace or at home, measuring how people feel and detecting stress. Tobii does similar by tracking eye movements to measure attention and productivity.

‘Sentiment analysis’ is a burgeoning field: Using text or conversation to get an idea of someone’s feelings. Jive scans employee communications to find out about morale, emotions and engagement.

Devices worn around the chest or wrist use sensors to measure physiological signs of stress from heart rate and skin conductance. Firstbeat is a wearable that tracks an important stress indicator, heart rate variability (HRV.)

There are also stress-measuring options that capture employees’ self-reported symptoms, like surveys about how they feel that ask them to rate their stress. Unmind and Moodbeam are companies that encourage employees to self-rate their happiness.

If any of this sounds a bit Orwellian to you, you’re not alone. Some employers have been happy to overreach the usual employment boundaries into employee’s private lives, whether overtly and covertly. It makes many understandably wary of developments in the working world like welltech that might seem a little too personal. I asked experts for their views on the right and wrong ways for employers to use technology to measure and respond to employee stress.

Decide what you want to track and why

Dr. Alexandra D. Crosswell is Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at University of California. She specializes in chronic stress and disease development. She told me, “Which measure to use depends on which type of stress you are trying to capture. As researchers, we rarely, if ever, use the broad term ‘stress,’ since it can mean so many things.”

Crosswell gives physiological stress as an example, which could be tracked by increased blood pressure or stress-related biomarkers like cortisol. “Depending on which type of stress you want to capture, there are well-validated tools to capture it.”

Self-reporting is one of the most popular ways to understand worker stress. Dr. Nick Taylor, CEO and co-founder of Unmind, says, “We provide employees with a self-report assessment that asks questions on seven areas of wellbeing.” These include the likes of fulfillment, sleep and connection. “From the answers, the platform sends employees personalized feedback and [reading or video] recommendations to help them,” Dr. Taylor explains. “At the same time, managers get anonymous, aggregated data to track progress, spot trends and make informed choices about wellbeing at work.”

Stress-tracking benefits for employers and employees

“Employers should track employee stress, particularly burnout, job strain and general overwhelm,” says Dr. Crosswell.

Knowing more about workplace stress can benefit a company and its employees in several ways. Offering interventions informed by stress tracking might reduce numbers who take time off for stress and other mental health issues.

But there’s more at stake. “There are three main reasons workplaces may gain from wellbeing measurement,” Dr. Taylor tells me. “First, to improve employee wellbeing by acting on reliable data. Second, to see if strategies to curb stress are working. Finally, to improve the organization’s performance, culture and reputation.”

Challenges with data about feelings

There are benefits to tracking employee wellbeing, but also challenges and risks to address from the start. What about privacy?

Many companies working in this space use de-identified data. Dr. Crosswell says, “Employee answers are kept anonymous by not asking for their name or other information that could identify them, so they can be honest about how they’re feeling without worrying their superior will know their responses. Then the data is grouped (aggregated) to see how employees are doing on mental health measures on average.”

Even if sensitive data about stress and wellbeing is de-identified, employers must still build trust around how they collect information, secure it and how it’s used.

Using a platform deemed safe doesn’t necessarily mean cybercriminals can’t access its data. What’s more, you must ensure your business or third parties hold data securely and in ways that comply with data privacy laws.

“Mental health is a personal topic that faces stigma in and out of the workplace,” says Dr. Taylor. “For any employee wellbeing tracking initiative to work, employees must trust the platform and know their data will be kept anonymous and confidential.”

Self-reporting might seem like one of the best options, but research shows it could have an adverse effect if employees can’t see benefits in sharing. In one study, participants who self-reported how they were feeling using a scale said the act itself negatively affected their emotions. Researchers think this could be because they find it a nuisance or didn’t like reflecting on their emotions.

Finally, there can be problems getting buy-in at all levels. “Robust measurement costs money,” says Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, a neurophysiologist specializing in sleep and energy. “Without enlightened leadership, this might seem low priority or unimportant.”

Put people front and center

Dr. Ramlakhan says employers should also look beyond tracking and ask what comes next. “Measurement and risk assessment aren’t enough. It’s important to target the right interventions to address problems.”

Stress and wellbeing tracking must be done in a way that leads to better processes and change in the organization. There should be goals to protect employees and minimize harm, not just to maximizing people’s contribution.

Whether carried out with a heart rate monitor or a happiness scale, tracking should include metrics not easily collected with tech. “Employers should also track things like feelings of meaning and purpose, connectedness with colleagues and whether employees feel they have what they need to do their job well,” Dr. Crosswell says.

Understanding the needs and goals of employees often depends on person-to-person interaction, care and consideration. Workplaces must commit to these kinds of goals alongside any shiny new wellbeing platform.

Dr. Crosswell goes on to say, “Quantitative data is helpful, but it’s more important leaders check in one-on-one with employees to see how they’re doing, asking them how overwhelmed they feel and what else they need to produce their best work.”

With growing options to track employee wellbeing with tech, businesses must think about why they’re doing it and how they’ll secure employee data and trust. Tracking employee wellbeing is most useful when combined with empathetic insights and lasting, real-world interventions that put people first.

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About authors

Becca Caddy writes about consumer technology, popular science and the future for Wired, Metro UK and New Scientist.