Science of Stress in The Workplace: Focus of Notre Dame Study

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Photo courtesy: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Photo courtesy: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

More than 100 Hoosier workers are donning high-tech wearable devices so University of Notre Dame scientists can gather data that could—for the first time—help companies analyze productivity through a new lens. Sound a bit thorny ethically? That’s why Notre Dame Wireless Institute Associate Professor Dr. Aaron Striegel says the university is well-suited to lead the study, as it will focus on “what are the right things to do with this data.” The research, which he notes would’ve been impossible 10 years ago, could uncover answers that top executives sometimes stew over.

“If you wanted to look at, ‘Are my people stressed out? Or are they ready? If we have a product push, is everybody rested? Or is my team too stressed, and we’re more likely to make mistakes?’” says Striegel. “Having a better understanding of the workforce and what one might call organizational readiness—that’s a really interesting factor to be able to gauge, as opposed to it being a delayed signal such as, ‘My people are out sick a lot.’”

The main device to collect the workers’ data is a Garmin vivosmart 3; it’s a wearable activity tracker much like the popular Fitbit, but the scientists chose the product because it’s among the first to include heart rate, which can help measure stress.

Some 750 workers nationwide in white-collar, “cognitively-demanding” jobs will be part of the $8 million project, funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and involving eight other universities. Although Striegel can’t share specific employers, about 150 Hoosiers at a handful of organizations will be part of the study once it’s fully enrolled.

The activity trackers are just the tip of the informational iceberg; the devices are also paired with a private smartphone app that streams stress data. High-tech environmental sensors will measure factors such as light levels, subtle vibrations and ambient noise—think an open cubicle versus a closed office. 

Beacon technology will log time spent at general locations, such as an office, residence or shopping area. Social aspects are part of the equation as well; sensors will detect coworker interaction, and the participants also agree to share their social media data. IoT technology plays a key role in the collection of the massive amount of data.

“Very few studies have looked at all of these sensors together to see what perspective they might give us. Is there enough data to do something actionable about it at the end of the day?” says Striegel. “We have to balance this all from ethical and privacy standpoints. It’s not just what can you do with this data; you have to think what’s ethical, correct and the responsible use of this technology?”

Combining the massive amount of data points with well-established methods of measuring productivity could reveal patterns, including how stress changes over time and how it impacts workers’ productivity.

“There’s the glib joke that Americans are supreme over-workers. Could one of the outgrowths be, ‘You should take more vacation’? We could demonstrate some better linkages on that,” says Striegel. “We’ll probably identify a bunch of interesting questions that are off-shoots; this is a first step along those lines.”

Striegel believes the scale and length of the 21-month study will produce intriguing data. The pool of participants includes all ages; Striegel is curious if parents, for example, exhibit changes as their school-age kids transition in and out of things like summer break or vacations.

While the individual participant may discover factors that impact their personal productivity, Striegel says the primary focus is examining it from an organizational perspective.

“If [the study] identifies some patterns, that could have interesting implications for human resources and how you might manage your employees,” says Striegel. “Or maybe even using it as a competitive advantage to say, ‘My people are less stressed than their people.’”

Striegel expects early study results in June and “bigger takeaways” when the study concludes in the first quarter of 2019. Powered by a wave of new mobile sensors and novel ways to collect and analyze data, the study may help employers pioneer new methods to assess productivity.  

Striegel says the data may show how things like “workplace creep” at night via smartphones impact stress.
Although the study will look at productivity through an organizational lens, Striegel says individuals may identify personal patterns.
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