Brock team partners with companies on workplace stress reduction research

Stressed-out employees seeking assistance to improve their well-being may soon be able to measure a key indicator of their stress level just by touching their smartphone.

Brock Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Sean Locke and his team of students have formed a partnership with CoreHealth Technologies to test out and refine an app developed by the health and wellness company to measure heart rate variability as part of their stress-reduction services.

The team is also collaborating with a second business, Corporate Health Partners, to help develop the company’s health and wellness coaching programs in conjunction with the app.

“Workplace stress is probably the No. 1 contributor to poor overall physical and mental health of employees,” says Locke. “Employee stress is related to poor work outcomes, poor satisfaction, more days missed and increased health-care costs.

Heart rate variability occurs when the time between heartbeats fluctuates by very small amounts, usually a fraction of a second.

Measuring heart rate variability is part of a behavioural change technique called ‘biofeedback’ in which individuals observe stress levels in their bodies as a way of managing their condition.

Head and shoulders photo of Brock Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Sean Locke.

Brock Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Sean Locke and his team of students have formed a research partnership with a health and wellness company to test out its mobile phone app and another partnership with a health and wellness company to evaluate its coaching programs.

In the human body, the automatic nervous system regulates involuntary physiological processes, such as heart rate, respiration and blood pressure. There are two subdivisions: the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate in ‘flight or fight’ situations, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart down during rest.

The body maintains stability, or homeostasis, between the two sub-systems as they adjust to external situations, making these two systems constantly in flux and opposing one another.

“Heart rate variability represents the heart’s ability to respond to a variety of physiological and environmental stimuli,” says Locke. He says a low heart rate variability indicates “impaired regulatory and homeostatic autonomic nervous system functions, which reduce the body’s ability to cope with internal and external stressors.”

Up until recently, measuring heart rate variability has been complicated and expensive, often requiring sophisticated machinery, such as an electrocardiogram.

To make this process easier and more accessible, CoreHealth Technologies created the Light Heart mobile app, which works by pressing the finger on the phone’s camera and flash for one minute after which the app reports the heart rate variability.

“We’re running a few different studies with CoreHealth Technologies to test how closely the app correlates to an electrocardiogram machine, which is the gold standard,” says Locke. “We want to see how accurate the new app is compared to the gold standard.”

CoreHealth Technologies Managing Director Anne Marie Kirby says the Light Heart app is intended to improve employee mental health by giving affordable, accessible and instantaneous feedback regarding one’s stress level.

“Because we are introducing both a new technology and a new concept to our customers, we wanted to be sure that we fully understand the impact,” says Kirby.

“Sean and his team’s deep knowledge of the subject and research expertise gives us confidence in our new product,” she says. “We are thrilled to see this multi-year, multi-stage human study on both efficacy and accuracy.”

Kirby says her company will use Light Heart to advance mental health within the corporate wellness industry, aiming to use the research to partner with other wellness providers.

Meanwhile, the team’s partnership with a second company, Corporate Health Partners, will evaluate coaching programs in conjunction with CoreHealth Technologies’ Light Heart app.

Locke and his team will be working with the company to compare two rounds of coaching to see whether a follow-up coaching session produces a greater net benefit.

One is the company’s current behavioural initiation coaching, which enables employees to identify a specific health change they’re committed to making and track their progress. The second coaching session, practice with feedback coaching, adds an extra session in which employees discuss the progress of their goals in detail and potential barriers to success.

Funding the health and wellness coaching and heart rate variability research that Locke and his team of five students are conducting is Mitacs, a national agency that supports student internship opportunities through academic-industry partnerships.

“I can do research in the lab that’s really interesting and important, but to have real-world impact, we need to seek partnerships outside of the University,” says Locke.

Workplace stress is one of the greatest contributors to chronic stress. According to a government report, 47 per cent of Canadians say that work is the most stressful part of their daily lives, with work-related psychological health problems costing the Canadian economy $20 billion.

A 2006 international review of research studies found a 50 per cent excess risk for coronary heart disease among employees experiencing work stress.

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