Microsoft ‘bonkers’ to think IT can help workers’ stress

HR directors have dismissed the use of technology to monitor workers’ stress levels as “bonkers”.

Technology giant Microsoft announced last month that it had applied for a patent to use wireless infra-red sensors to monitor changes in workers’ heart rates, blood pressure, body temperature and facial expressions, to tell how stressed or frustrated they are.

Employees under chronic stress at work have a 68% higher risk of developing heart disease, a study by University College London found last month.

The level of stress endured by an employee would be worked out by matching their polygraph chart data, similar to that used by a lie detector test, to psychological profiles like those obtained from a Myers Briggs test.

But the idea has been ridiculed by HR chiefs across UK private and public sector organisations.

Gillian Hibberd, corporate director for people and policy at Buckinghamshire County Council, told Employers’ Law: “My view is that this is HR gone bonkers! We should be treating employees as responsible and intelligent adults.

“As an employer we have a duty of care and should be giving employees access to information and resources that can contribute to better health and wellbeing. However, we shouldn’t be in the business of covert monitoring. I applaud Microsoft’s obvious concern for the wellbeing of its employees but has it taken the time to ask them what they think of the proposal?”

Personnel director at the Royal Opera House, Elizabeth Bridges, said her business would not take this software on board even if it was free. “You cannot reduce identifying or managing stress to just a few medical readings. It’s much more complicated than that.

“And what do you do when you get stressed – are you supposed to go and lie down in a dark room somewhere?” she asked. She added that monitoring the stress levels of employees was the responsibility of line managers, not machines, and said that even if such data was collected it is not the sort HR teams could use.

“Staff should be encouraged to come forward with their problems rather than wait until they are ‘detected’. People would resent being monitored – our staff would go bananas,” she added.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development agreed that using “intrusive” software like this would have a negative effect on employee morale, causing stress levels to rise.

However, Richard Phelps, partner at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, said evidence-based management, if done properly, could help employers make important business decisions.

“The challenge is to manage data, interpret it and turn it into relevant actions. Many could make large efficiency savings and improvements in productivity if they worked with what they have, without resorting to monitoring employees’ heart rates,” he said.

Microsoft vice-president Horacio Gutierrez said: “This particular [patent] application does not relate to any of Microsoft’s current product plans. If this application were ever to be incorporated into a product, Microsoft would work with its customers to help ensure that they use the technology responsibly and lawfully.”

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