What value can academics add when working with industry partners? David Ellis reflects on his work with company BIOStress, explaining how he’s using his scholarly research to help them develop better ways to measure, monitor and manage stress in the workplace. He emphasises the importance of collaboration, showing how practitioners and scholars can drive innovation together.
Previous research from myself and others has suggested that digital traces of behavior can be used to detect when people are moving into stressful states. However, outside the confines of a laboratory, stress remains a large problem for society as a whole and has a detrimental impact on health care systems and economies. High levels of stress are associated with negative outcomes including depression and anxiety. According to the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, around 12 million adults in the UK visit their general practitioner (GP) each year with mental health problems, many of which are related to or brought on by stress. As a result, millions of working days are lost per year due to stress-related illnesses.
As such, stress is both a personal and interpersonal problem as it impacts organisations as well as individuals. Many workplaces globally consider it a significant issue and are taking steps to address stress.
Using technology to combat stress
Of course, stress is also a natural reaction to everyday pressures and small levels of stress appear to have beneficial effects. For example, manageable stress appears to increase alertness and performance. However, stress becomes problematic when it is unmanageable and starts to impact other aspects of your life.
New technologies may help balance the positive and negative aspects of stress. Wearable devices, for example, can automatically monitor the physical and mental health of individuals across a variety of contexts, by tracking the typical physiological responses of stress for example variations in heart rate, pulse, skin temperature, pupil dilation and electrodermal activity (EDA).
An individual and organisational approach
Following Higher Education Innovation Funding, I’ve recently been working with a company called BIOStress who are trying to understand, measure and ultimately reduce workplace stress. They’re using advanced biometric devices to track employee stress levels to identify what’s causing the issues – both on an organisational and individual level - and how to solve them.
This data is then anonymised, aggregated and analysed to establish how a business can proactively improve wellbeing and stress management. This might include improving training, working practices or other activities to support stress management.
My role involved equal parts psychology and data science. Specifically, I helped develop data processing pipelines that combined data from wearable devices and personal diaries kept by participants. This data is then used to generate customised stress reports, which can then help create personalised management plans to help individuals deal with fluctuations in their stress levels.
Interestingly, we found that high employee stress was linked just as strongly to outside factors such as sleep problems and lack of physical activity as workplace matters. As such, these management plans took a holistic approach to improving stress and focused on employee wellbeing more broadly. This is both about using technology for social good to improve employees' well-being, but also saving businesses money and helping them attract and retain talent.
A joint approach to new technology
This work reveals how the development of new technology is more likely to be successful when combined with the social sciences. Of course, there is also the potential to do harm with data that is either inaccurate or shared without a participant’s consent. We remain very mindful of the privacy implications of this work and ensured that the data collected on individuals couldn’t be used in a punitive way – no individual data was shared with line managers for example, only aggregated data that couldn’t allow any one person to be identified.
Psychologists with technical expertise or data analysts who also have some understandings of psychology are becoming highly prized within industry. Such diversity can benefit academia and industry, though it's much more widespread in the latter at present. However, academics from any discipline who are comfortable jumping into something new should not underestimate the value they can bring when it comes to technological innovation that can be rather ambiguous at the start.
BIOStress have now secured additional funding from Innovate UK and the business continues to grow. Their success relies on placing equal value on responsible innovation, psychology, computer and data science.
If you remove one piece of that puzzle, it becomes more stressful for everyone.