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Managing workplace stress with physiolitics: leveraging benefits and addressing concerns

Datum:28 september 2021
Auteur:Nevena Ivanovic
Managing workplace stress with physiolitics: leveraging benefits and addressing concerns
Managing workplace stress with physiolitics: leveraging benefits and addressing concerns

In 2019 in the Netherlands, 35% of employees indicated work-related stress as a reason for absenteeism and 17% reported burnout complaints [1] costing companies over 3 billion euros [2]. While interventions to reduce occupational stress have in general shown positive results [3], efforts to improve their effectiveness increasingly include wearable technology. Wearable devices used in stress management focus on collecting and processing physiological data (e.g. heart rate, temperature, respiratory patterns, electrodermal activity, body movement), and such wearables are called physiolitics [4]. Physiolitics can be used to monitor stress levels in real-time and in a more fine-grained and precise manner compared to usual data collection methods, e.g. surveys. Despite the promising benefits of physiolitics, the application of wearables is associated with many concerns related to ethics, privacy, safety, management, and storage of collected data. Is it possible to leverage the potential of this technology while adequately addressing associated concerns? 

The unique value of physiolitics in managing stress is that they can inform users about the changes in their stress levels before these reach extreme levels. This is crucial because, apart from having negative effects on health, intense stress is associated with tunnel vision that can increase the risk of human error, occupational hazards, and inadequate, rushed, and risky decisions, which can harm employees’ wellbeing and performance. Further, insights about increased stress levels in particular teams or departments might help managers make targeted interventions and increase organizational performance. Hence, managing occupational stress with the help of physiolitics can benefit and target both individual employees and organizations as a whole. We will discuss both of these applications, address privacy concerns and suggest how to deal with these concerns. 

Physiolitics can provide employees with individualized, real-time feedback on elevated stress levels and suggestions on when to take breaks or refrain from action. Further, in the form of biofeedback, employees can learn to recognize physical indicators of stress, which might help them improve stress management skills. One example of the individual-focused application of physiolitics is Rationalizer, developed by Koninklijke Philips Electronics and ABN AMRO Bank already in 2009. The bracelet measures electrodermal activity and warns traders of elevated stress, which makes them rethink their decision before acting [5]. Although this form of self-tracking appears to be useful to enhance individual wellbeing, engagement, and performance, employees are in practice often reluctant to adopt this technology. The most common reasons for employees’ hesitation are privacy concerns, especially if managers appear to have access to the individual-level data collected from devices.

One way to overcome privacy concerns is to anonymize employee data and interpret aggregated measures on the group level. The idea of this application would be to analyze the trends of stress level fluctuation over time, aggregated on the level of a team, department, or the whole organization [6]. Elevated stress levels would help identify departments that are currently under pressure, and consequently reorganize workload or employ other organizational changes to decrease pressure on this department. Even though tracking aggregated indicators of stress is still not widely adopted, and adequate stress measures are still being developed, some companies (e.g. Humanyze) apply wearables that allow anonymous tracking, which means that similar adoption success might be expected for stress tracking solutions as well.

Physiolitics allow novel ways to manage the occupational stress of individuals and organizations. Although the application of wearables in organizations comes with many ethical and privacy concerns, this technology continues to develop. Stress measures and their interpretation will eventually become more precise and validated, ethical and privacy regulations are likely to develop to ensure employees are protected, and future generations of workers might be more comfortable with self-tracking and sharing their data. Hence, it is expected that most managers will in near future consider introducing physiolitics in their organizations. We outline some of the most emphasized concerns managers should reflect on: 

  1. Transparency. Research shows that most users do not know how this technology works, what kind of data is collected, and how is data stored and managed [7]. Hence, employees might mistrust the technology and doubt its usefulness. This might negatively impact adoption and discontinuation rates. To prevent this, managers should be transparent about the technology and sufficiently inform employees about it. 
  2. Clear goals. The connection between collected data and expected performance outcomes should be clear to both managers and employees. In the case of self-tracking, employees should understand how are they benefiting. In the case of aggregated analysis, employees should understand how is individual adoption of technology helping higher organizational goals. This would help intrinsically motivate employees to use the technology. Further, managers should have a clear understanding of how to interpret the aggregated output.
  3. Free choice. Employees should have the right to opt out of the wearable program without receiving any penalties. Employees should be intrinsically motivated to use the device. Rewarding the adoption of technology with monetary and other kinds of benefits might negatively impact organizational culture and employee work engagement.  
  4. Data security. Managers should put safety measures in place to protect collected data from potential cyber-attacks and misuse. 
  5. Choosing the right technology. Despite the high number of available devices on the market, only a small portion is validated [8,9]. Managers should choose the technology that matches their clearly defined goals, and that is validated and proven effective [8]. 
  6. Impact on workplace identity and culture. Early adopters of wearable technology in organizations are often wearable enthusiasts, “lifeloggers” or “bodyhackers” themselves. It is important to understand that even if the majority of employees and managers shares enthusiasm and curiosity about wearables, introducing this novel technology to the whole organization might impact organizational culture and employee identity in unexpected ways, and not necessarily positive. A workplace that offers technology that allows employees to become  “enhanced”, “better selves”, might seem desirable to some. Yet, frequent self-tracking and experiencing daily events through the lens of charts and stress scores might create additional stress to some employees [7], reduce their ability to be immersed in their work [10], and make them feel objectified and alienated from work [10].

Organizations increasingly employ wearables, despite the lack of strong scientific evidence on the effectiveness of available physiolitics, and the potential negative consequences of their adoption. Enthusiasm and novelty-seeking urges of developers and customers need to be balanced with caution to ensure that we can embrace this technology and steer its future development and application in the direction that benefits both employees and organizations. 

 Nevena Ivanović (nevena.ivanovic, @NevenaIvanovic_) is a PhD candidate at the department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the University of Groningen. She researches effective communication strategies of employees and teams working in contexts characterized by high uncertainty and time pressure, risk of disruptions and crises, and those operating in complex and dynamic environments in general. She works with digital communication data and data collected using wearables.


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