Job stress is a major concern for many organizations. Over the last 25 years, research has shown an imminence growth in stress-related illness across British business. Stress-related absence alone is estimated to cost the UK economy of is in excess of £ 5bn per year, while a recent report by the European Heart Journal claims that people under 50 who reported high levels of job-related stress were 70% more likely to develop heart disease than those in an unstressed job.
So, what can employers do about this problem? Microsoft has recently filed a patent for a computer system that actively seeks to monitor performance and well-being by measuring physiological factors such as heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expressions and blood pressure. The system, Microsoft claims, could "automatically detect frustration or stress in the user" and notify management of a potential problem.
In principle, this appears to be a good idea. Of course, there have been the usual crites of a 'surveillance society' and Orwell's Big Brother ', but it is well recognized that stress reduces employee well-being and can manifest itself in physical symptoms that adversely affect an individual's ability to perform. This system, if properly implemented, could have been a valuable addition to an organization's 'stress management toolkit'.
However, it is important to take a holistic and proactive view of the situation – monitoring physiological signs of stress is only one of many approaches to stress management. Organizations should have systems in place that address the key stages in the stress journey:
a) Prevention : Studies have shown that nearly a quarter of variance in job performance can be attributed to how happy and positive your employees feel. Applying the principles of positive psychology – ie focusing on promoting mental 'wellness' as opposed to addressing mental 'illness' – allows for a preemptive strike on the causes of unhappiness and stress before they can manifest themselves.
b) Detection : Used alongside engagement surveys and employee well-being audits, Microsoft's new system could have been a positive addition to an organization's ability to identify job stressors and stress reactions. If identified early enough, the organization could implement global or local changes to remove the factors that cause stress before they get too serious.
c) Treatment and Rehabilitation : What is one person's healthy pressure can be another person's source of burn-out. It is inevitable that, even with the implementation of preventive action, some individuals will slip through the net and demonstrate signs of chronic stress. Interventions at an organizational level (eg improving job content, adjusting environmental factors, enhancing person-job fit) and at an individual level (eg implementing employee assistance programs, teaching coping and relaxation strategies) can help employees to overcome stress both now and in the future.
The fact is employee well-being is critical to the success of a business. Without it, the organization risks losing the very thing that makes it great – its people. Microsoft's new system does indeed raise serious questions over privacy. However, with careful and considerate implementation, this system could have been valuable addition to an organization's holistic approach to stress management.