There are very few jobs that exist in today’s day and age that are stress-free. Sure, being a professional ice-cream taster or a Netflix tagger – a part-time employee who gets paid to watch TV shows and films on the streaming service – might sound like a great way to make a living, but we can’t all be lucky enough to spend our days eating 250 different flavours of ice-cream.

Unfortunately, for those in more traditional employment, workplace stress is on the rise. In 2018, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released a report showing that the leading cause of ill health and sickness in Britain is workplace stress and anxiety.

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The UK government agency found that there were 0.6 million cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2017/18, which accounted for 44 percent of all the cases of work-related ill health in Britain. Furthermore, 1.4 million working people suffered from general work-related ill health in 2017/18 and 15.4 million working days were lost as a result.

Despite the pervasiveness of work-related stress, very few people look after their mental wellbeing in the same way that they look after their physical health. Since 2010, Fitbit Inc. has sold over 76 million devices worldwide and studies have shown that the use of wearable technology can directly impact how much weight a user loses. During that same period in the UK, the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety has risen from around 1,400 per 100,000 workers to 1,800.

The increase in workplace stress has not gone unnoticed by everyone, however. Dutch electronics company Philips has been a stalwart of the healthtech market for the best part of the twentieth century, with imaging systems, defibrillators, clinical informatics and diagnostic monitoring products among the products in it vast portfolio.

Despite the success of its clinical products, the company wanted to tap into an emerging market of so-called ‘pro-sumers’; consumers who want professional-grade technology that can be used to personally track their health. As a result, Philips' Intellectual Property & Standards (IP&S) arm has recently licensed the software behind EmoGraphy, a biopsychological stress model that provides users with an insight into their daily stress levels.

“We wanted to find out if we could help consumers better manage their stress,” Navin Natoewal, Head of Integrated Technology Solutions at Philips Intellectual Property and Standards, told Techworld. “So, we started working with consumers, professionals and experts to try and find out what is the real value proposition of this kind of technology.”

Philips IP&S has a total IP portfolio currently consisting of 62,000 patent rights, 37,600 trademarks and 47,800 design rights. Natoewal says the business arm came across a researcher who was measuring bodily-functions like arousal via the skin and Philips wanted to see if there were any practical applications for this technology. Currently, Philips only has a license for the software and is looking to partner with wearable manufactures to roll the technology out to consumers in the coming year.

Unlike other companies who claim to monitor stress levels by tracking users’ heart rate, EmoGraphy measures stress through skin conductance.

“The literature clearly shows that you can’t accurately use your heart rate to monitor stress because the heart is coupled to both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system,” Natoewal explains. “The only bodily function that is uniquely coupled to the sympathetic nervous system, which is the system which manages stress, is sweat. So, what we do with our technology is measure the changes in sweat.”

The sweat produced by the human body during exercise is different to the stress-induced sweat, meaning EmoGraphy is able to distinguish between when a user is undergoing something that is physically demanding and when the wearer is feeling mentally under pressure. Stress-related sweat contains adrenaline and various hormones that are easily detectable on the skin. However, it is the body’s increased production of the hormone cortisol during periods of high-stress that EmoGraphy relies on.

“We wanted to be able to look at the level of stress someone has and try to interpret that into something actionable. The data can show you whether you're in a balanced state, meaning you’re likely to be capable of doing your job well, or whether you are over-stimulated and therefore stressed. Stress can impact on your performance at work, how you think or even your creativity but now you’ll have a better understanding of why.

“Managing stress all starts with awareness. We want to make sure that people are aware of their levels of stress and help find a way to make it more understandable for them. For example, you might have a startle reflex which means you sometimes get an immediate spike in your stress level. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but if you are able to see that your stress levels are continuously high over longer periods, that’s when you need to do something.”

Turning stress monitoring into stress management

Like with any on-going condition, it’s important for individuals to not just monitor their stress levels but know how to manage them long-term. EmoGraphy also provides predictive capabilities for users, alerting them to certain events that might be stressors and offering practical solutions to help mitigate their stress levels over the coming hours.

“With our EmoGraphy technology, we can actually predict the stress levels that people will have in the near-future. The technology will tell you ‘if you continue to do what you've been doing for the last half hour, you will cross that threshold of being too stressed in an hour from now’,” Natoewal says.

Levels of cortisol tend to peak about 20-30 minutes after a person has started experiencing a stressor. While EmoGraphy cannot stop users from ever doing anything they might find stressful, Natoewal explains that the technology can predict that if an individual was to continue to do what you’ve been doing in the last half-hour, then they will be overstimulated one or two hours from now and therefore stressed.

“By alerting the user to this, it gives them the opportunity to actually change their behaviour and do different activities to avoid becoming too stressed. That's what we are continually trying to do: provide timely, actionable insights for people so they can change that behaviour and reduce their stress levels long-term.”