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How tech can help us be happier at work

Everybody deserves to be happy at work. We spend the majority of our time in the workplace, so if its getting us down, it has the potential to affect our entire wellbeing.

People are starting to realise this, and the phrase “workplace wellness” has sprung into public conscious over recent years, supported by research into the dangers of overworking and stress.  

Tech has the potential to combat the growing epidemic and help cultivate healthier workplaces. From allowing instant access to a doctor through your phone to monitoring employee’s emotional and physical states, startups are utilizing the latest technology to help people thrive in their 9-5.

Why should employers care about the mental wellbeing of their employees? Clinically put, happier employees cost less.

According to the American Institute of Stress, worker stress costs the country $300 billion annually, whilst in Europe it accounts for 60% of working days lost. Meanwhile, a report by breatheHR found that poor company culture costs the UK economy a staggering £23.6 billion per year.

The financial cost isn’t surprising when you consider the scale of the problem.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers reported that 83 percent of American employees are stressed about their jobs — up from 73 percent just a year before, whilst Harris Interactive found similar results, with 8 in 10 Americans feeling the strain.

There is a similar picture here in the UK. Vitality’s 2017 edition of the annual report “Britain’s Healthiest Workplace” showed that high work engagement is shockingly low, at just 11%.

Whilst you can’t take studies as gospel - results can be skewed by sample size and selection - actions need to be taken to prevent workers exhausting themselves.

Acknowledging that high pressure jobs are stressing us out is a step forwards, but the next question is much more convoluted; The how of cultivating a happier workforce. It’s all well and good being aware of the benefits of workplace wellness, but turning this buzzword into tangible results and enforcing culture changes is a complex task.  

Meditating at work

This is where Wisdom Labs come in. There are countless meditation apps out there, but this Silicon Valley startup wanted to create something specifically for the workplace. It utilises science based tools to help people practice mindfulness, resilience and compassion, helping them to be their best selves at work.

Parneet Pal is Wisdom Lab’s Chief Science Officer and a Harvard-trained physician who focuses on using lifestyle as a medicine. “80-90% of these diseases are preventable, yet there is an emphasis in healthcare systems on treatment rather than prevention,” Parneet muses.

Parneet instead envisions the development of a compassionate society where healthcare isn’t reactory. To do that Wisdom Labs aims to go deeper than offering a gym membership, cycle to work scheme or communal apples in the office. It’s about behaviour change, which, simply put, is hard. “When it comes to prevention, we all know what we need to do to take care of ourselves but it’s more difficult to put into practice,” Parneet asserts. Wisdom Labs negotiate this with a sliding scale of coaching. “We look at an organisation as a system where people are at different points on the spectrum of behaviour change and ask; ‘How do we meet the needs of both of these people?’. It’s taken a long time to figure out the right mix, and we have landed on a combination of in-person programming and technology.”

Tech, on the other hand, can help improve the versatility and accessibility of wellness programs. Enter Wisdom Labs’ ‘Wise @ Work’ app. It offers a range of mindfulness practices, curated by meditation teachers, covering topics such healthy lifestyle and habit design, emotional intelligence and mindful leadership.

“These practices help to lower stress, by stimulating the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. This helps to lower the heart rate, relax the muscles and fight inflammation,” Parneet explains. “Which is a good thing, because inflammation is the start of the chronic disease.”

“We know that neuroplastic changes in the brain take place if you commit to daily practice,” Parneet continues. “Mindfulness strengthens brain networks associated with emotional regulation, sociality and creativity.”

A coach in your pocket

Wisdom Labs aren’t the only company trying to employ tech to improve workplace wellness. Emoquo is a digital coaching app, aiming to help build emotional resilience in the workplace. The app features advice from 25 therapists and coaches on how to deal with situations such as being micro-managed or undermined, right through to bullying and harassment.

Emoquo also offers a real-time heatmap which shows an anonymised picture of how employees are feeling. The ‘emotional resilience’ of employees is given a fluctuating score between one and five. This acts as a benchmark and early warning that something is going wrong, and reveals the coaching scenarios that people are looking up, to indicate what they are struggling with.

Whilst some may argue this is invasive, being aware of the mental state of your employees is a crucial endeavour. There are 3 billion people employed around the world, and one in five suffer from a work-related mental health issue – which means that 600 million people are having a really bad time at work right now.

“The scary part is that only 10% of these people will seek help because of the stigma and fear of repercussions,” Rappoport said.

A responsibility shared is a responsibility halved

One of the flaws of wellness programs is that the onus is often placed on the employee to better themselves. In actual fact, research shows that how stressed we are at work has a lot to do with things that we can’t control; such as our income and age. Unsurprisingly, the more money we make, the less stressed we are.

In fact, more than half of the respondents to PWC’s financial wellness report are stressed about finances. Vitality’s report found that employees with a lot of financial concerns are twice as likely to be obese and seven times more likely to suffer from depression than those without any financial concerns. Meanwhile, 72% of employees with a lot of financial concerns suffer from work-related stress, compared to the survey average of 54%.

The simple solution to this would be to pay employees more. But whilst we wait for a miracle (or groundbreaking political upheaval) a top down approach to wellness programs may be an effective short-term solution.

“You have to be responsible for your own health and wellbeing, you can’t get away from that,” Parneet asserted. “And yet, behavior change depends on the environment around you, so the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the leaders to create a culture of health. That’s difficult because it requires a lot of interest and investment, but it has huge dividends in the long run.”

Why wellness programs fail

It’s an inescapable fact, however, that some wellness programs fail. When looking at general return in investment for fitness and nutrition programmes, the results range from slight improvement to no improvement. So what differentiates a good wellness programme from a poor one?

“You can’t just parachute a programme into an office and say ‘here you go, be well’. That’s bound to fail,” Parneet explains.

So the structure and depth of the programme plays a huge part in its success, unsurprisingly. But more vigorous data collection is also needed to paint a fairer picture of its effects.

“If you are really interested in return in investment and proving a decrease in healthcare costs,” Parneet says, “You have to do intensive 3-5 year studies and most companies won’t invest in those.”

Some companies are able to show decreases in healthcare costs, but the benefits go much deeper than cost. Factors such as employee engagement, the pride they take in their work and how likely they would be to recommend the company to a friend, as well as short term changes such as a reducing absenteeism are important to a company. It’s there that you see the benefits.

Whilst the failure of certain wellness programmes can be disheartening, they also provide valuable insights into how we can make them better. A key requirement is to take a holistic approach. This means considering all of the components that make up wellness; physical, financial, emotional and social health.

Telling workers to eat a salad and go for a run just won’t cut it.

The next trick seems blindly obvious, but is often overlooked. Simply, employers should ask employees what they want.

“Everyone is unique when it comes to their health and wellbeing so I think it’s impossible for any programme to address everyone’s needs, but we can build a foundation for change with mindfulness,” Parneet states.

Addressing specific needs

Pregnant women and new mothers, for example, have very specific needs. Melinda Nicci, CEO and Founder of Baby2Body, wanted to address these using tech.  

The app uses AI to deliver a evidence-based advice for women during specific stages of pregnancy or motherhood. It’s something that Melinda wishes was available to her when she became a new mother. She argues that it's a misconception that women want more maternity leave, they want to be engaged with work, that can fit around their new lives.

Employers should accommodate for the changing needs of employees; whether that encompasses giving birth, moving house, losing a family member or experiencing mental health difficulties. People’s lives can change unexpectedly, and the resulting shockwaves can unbalance their health and mood.

How tech can support wellness

As well as enabling personalised care, tech empowers employees to monitor their own health.

Babylon is a digital service that aims to do just that, by putting accessible healthcare in the hands of everyone - literally, by enabling you 24/7 access to clinicians via your smartphone.

“The core idea is to empower patients to engage with their own health and practice well care rather than sick care,” explains Dr Hannah Allen, Associate Medical Director at Babylon. “Years ago it was very normal to have a journalistic consolation style: ‘I am doctor I will tell you what to do when you’re sick to make you well’, now we are seeing a shift of people taking it to be their responsibility, and wanting to stay well, for themselves and their family,” she added.

Babylon’s video conference technology can be a saving grace for office workers who are too busy to take time off for appointments. “You can have a consultation with your GP instantly or have prescriptions delivered to your local pharmacy,” Hannah explains. “Not only does it stop you developing a more serious illness, but it will reduce the number of sick days employees have to take.”

Flexible working hours could also help ease the strain. “Tech that enables us to work remotely has been eye opening for a lot of companies; People don’t need to be in the office 24/7. We need to be much more adaptable now, and allow workers to be able to work from whether their comfortable,” Hannah argued.  

Furthermore, wearables, such biosensors and fitbits, can help employees detect subtle changes in their health, such as fluctuations in heart rate. “This could indicate that, for instance, you may be feeling particularly tired or stressed so you need time off,” Hannah said.

With Babylon, you can check your symptoms online for free. “This helps you get an idea of what might be happening and how to manage it best without necessarily seeing your doctor, so it’s not a drain on NHS resources,” Hannah states.

Babylon also lets you build a digital twin, which shows you areas you might need to work on. This could determine that, for instance, you might be smoking 20 a day now and not think about it, but in five years times, your lungs will look very different.

Prevention not cure

The crux of it all, Hannah explains, is about: “highlighting problems before they get to the point where you are really sick and it's not only a more expensive problem, but a more invasive treatment.”

The fact remains that the responsibility for workplace wellness should not fall solely on the employee. In fact, Parneet argues that wise leadership is the foundation for change. “Your wellbeing at work has a correlation to your relationship to your manager, more than any wellness programme. Leaders can build an environment of psychological wellness and trust through mindful communication and compassion,” she continued. “They should scrutinise their workflow structure, making sure they allocate enough time for breaks.”

The push for workplace wellness is a painfully slow slog, but change is happening. Companies are recognising the benefits of supporting emotional wellbeing, whilst tech can put plans into action.

But regardless of the success of any programme, to be happy at work, we need to feel useful. Parneet explains: “At the end of the day, we are all looking for a greater sense of meaning and connection in our work. We need to provide opportunities for employees to explore that and tailor their work to their strengths.”

So, eat your fruit and veg, throw on your Fitbit and watch your smoking habit. But also put pressure on management to create an environment where wellness is treated as more than a trend.

Wed 5 Dec 2018 - Siân Abigail Bradley

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