Sensors, artificial intelligence and big data are not only changing healthcare, they are transforming the workplace and may even reinvent the insurance sector.
Stress takes its toll on all of us. It affects our mental health and is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. It also costs employers tens of thousands of euro per year while the healthcare costs for governments and private insurers run into the billions.
My start-up company, BioBeats, began with a mission to reduce people’s stress. We use biometric sensor technologies to understand stress and offer proven interventions that can reduce its impact. Wearables and smartphones can collect a wealth of data which are fed into artificial intelligence algorithms to anticipate moments of stress and deliver targeting interventions. By collecting biometric data for a couple of weeks, we can predict how you’ll sleep tonight or how you will perform at work next week.
Opportunities in occupational health
At first, we developed this product for the general public. The app, Hear and Now, is in the app store and teaches powerful deep-breathing exercises. These interventions are based on evidence-based techniques backed up by robust science. It soon became clear to us that the market for a tool like this is much bigger than stressed-out individuals keen on avoiding burnout. Employers have much to gain by understanding and reducing the burden of stress. Not only do companies want to curb avoidable absenteeism, they face a daily battle with presenteeism – people who turn up for work but are unproductive due to stress and worry.
So, we built a dashboard for employers. The system collects information on employees which individuals can use to better understand when stress occurs and what causes it. They can then learn valuable stress-control techniques that improve their health. But for employers, the aggregated and anonymised dataset generated by this application gives HR and occupational health departments insights that were inconceivable just a few years ago: they can see teams heading for burnout due to workplace policy or line management issues, or restructure the working day if the morning/afternoon is associated with excess stress.
At the centre of this tool is heart rate variability. When we are tense, our heartbeats stick to a uniform rhythm; at our more relaxed moments, the heartbeats show greater variability. We have tested this tool as part of a pilot project with AXA and BNP Paribas, and published the results in a journal – Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. Our findings are striking.
Based on a randomised sample of 550 bankers, divided into a control group and a group that used the BioBeats tool, we explored the power of monitoring heart rate variability and the prospect of reducing stress through deep-breathing techniques. We found that in the group using our app, workplace stress was reduced by 23%. Not only are employers getting intelligence that shines a light on a serious problem, they also have an effective solution.
And we are not speaking only about short-term gains to contentment or productivity. We found a direct link between ruminators – people who worry a lot and have trouble switching off from workplace worries – and cardiovascular disease. If we can curb stress in these ruminators, we may have a shot at improving their heart health.
The medtech era
Our journey from developing a consumer-facing product to building a solution for corporate wellness shows how AI and big data are opening new doors for companies that might previously have remained in the consumer app or mHealth space. BioBeats is a modern medtech company. But we deal not with patients with acute need for surgery or diagnostic hardware, we are in the business of everyday wellness. And that, we hope, will prove to be a very big business indeed.