Athletes have long submitted to tests that measure how stress levels and sleep patterns affect their performance. Could workers be next?
As devices that can monitor our personal metrics become more accessible, and widely used — think Fitbits and Apple Watches — researchers have started exploring how physiological factors can affect employees’ productivity at work, potentially unveiling a new avenue for improving job performance, and opening a Pandora’s box of privacy concerns.
The data in these studies is largely being captured with wearable technology, both devices that are on the market and ones developed for research purposes — bands worn on the wrist that track heart rate, steps, and sleep; headsets that monitor brain activity; ID cards with Bluetooth sensors that detect a worker’s location.
Nearly 65 million workplace-related wearables will be shipped worldwide this year, a figure that will more than double to 149 million by 2024, driven by the health care industry, according to projections by the New York tech advisory firm ABI Research (this estimate includes devices worn by patients, such as blood pressure monitors, as well as technology used by doctors to assist with surgery).
Wearable technology is already being used to enhance job performance and safety in a number of fields, including smart glasses that display instructions while manufacturing workers assemble parts and baseball cap-like devices that measure the fatigue of truck drivers at Australian coal mines. Amazon has patented wristbands that would track where employees’ hands are in relation to the inventory they need to collect, using ultrasonic pulses or radio transmission, and send out vibrations to let workers know they’re in the right place.
In the world of white-collar work, however, wearables have so far largely been limited to voluntary wellness programs that monitor physical activity. But advancing productivity among professionals could be next.
A team of researchers at Dartmouth College and other universities recently studied 550 volunteers working in a variety of fields, including consulting and software, who were outfitted with Garmin fitness trackers to monitor stress, sleep, and heart functions and smartphone apps developed for the study that measured phone use, physical activity, and ambient light. Bluetooth location beacons were used at their homes and offices.
Using machine-learning algorithms to process the information, several key findings emerged: High performers — self-identified through regular surveys of work performance — used their phones less, both during and away from work, and had longer periods of deep sleep.
To Pino Audia, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who coauthored the study, the results suggest that, perhaps not surprisingly, people with greater discipline get more work done. And because they appear to be less addicted to their phones, they are less distracted during the workday and less likely to get burned out, Audia said. It also likely allows them to sleep better.
“We might be scratching the surface of a new way to think about high performance,” he said.
This incredibly personal, otherwise invisible data detailing the inner workings of our bodies is becoming easier to analyze as technology advances, harnessing a kind of “biometric resume,” as one researcher put it, that could reveal what makes us work more efficiently. It could be mutually beneficial — proving to employers that some workers get more done after they’ve had a midday nap, for instance — but could also put our most private information in the hands of employers.
In Boston, a number of organizations are developing systems that could use wearables to potentially improve productivity. At Neurable, which designs interfaces that allow computers to understand brain activity, neuroscientists have developed algorithms that record stress and fatigue, among other measures. Before their shifts begin, employers could test the mental state of people in jobs with little room for error, such as traders moving large sums of money and late-shift pharmaceutical manufacturing workers, said cofounder Adam Molnar.
But the real value in harnessing workers’ physiological data, said Chris Brauer, director of innovation in the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, is providing them with higher job satisfaction by helping them perform better. This is a better predictor of work outcomes than, say, monitoring employees’ sleep patterns to see when they are more likely to make a big sale, he said.
In 2014, Brauer conducted a study of 120 workers at a London media agency who wore wrist devices to monitor movement and biosensors to measure brain activity. The productivity of those using the wearables increased 8.5 percent, and their job satisfaction levels went up 3.5 percent.
It turned out that some employees got more done after leaving the office for lunch or while working from home — factors measured by sensors tracking location and natural light. Armed with this knowledge, Brauer said, workers can adjust their habits to become more efficient, and companies can better understand what motivates individual employees.
“As a live measure, these systems are very, very useful for gathering data from the human being that would otherwise be inaccessible,” Brauer said.
But finding out what drives you can be tricky.
One woman in the study was 40 percent more productive on Tuesday afternoons, as rated by her colleagues, and at 6 p.m. every Tuesday, the brain sensor detected a spike in emotional excitement and energy. It turned out that the woman, who usually had to work until 8 every night to get her work done, had a standing date to go out with her girlfriends every Tuesday at 6. So on those days, she plowed through her work in order get out early. The problem is, she told Brauer, she hated Tuesday afternoons because she had to work so hard.
Several states have passed laws requiring employers to notify, and get consent from, workers before collecting their biometric data, said Jenny Holmes, a labor lawyer specializing in privacy and data protection at Nixon Peabody in Rochester, N.Y. A bill pending in Massachusetts would limit a company to collecting data from workers that is within “the scope of its role as an employer,” which would not necessarily require consent and could be widely interpreted, Holmes said. And even if employers get consent, employees could push back if they feel forced into it.
In a 2017 survey of 1,000 British workers, more than half of respondents said they were interested in the potential benefits of wearables, but 67 percent feared that it could lead to a culture of “Big Brother”-type surveillance.
“This technology makes people uncomfortable,” said David Schatsky, a managing director at Deloitte who analyzes emerging technology and business trends. “It’s very personal.”
As more people track their own steps and sleep and willingly send this information into the cloud to learn more about themselves, submitting to a biometric analysis at work may not seem so invasive. Still, there is the possibility that employers could misuse the data to try to wring more work out of people.
“Retail workers may be concerned,” Stephanie Tomsett, a wearables analyst at ABI Research, said in an e-mail, “that if they have the lowest step count during a shift, their job may be at risk.”Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.