Woman stressed at work
While action bias can demonstrate decisiveness, left unchecked, it may lead to impulsive decisions and unnecessary stress. Image Credit: Pexels.com

Employees returning to offices have flocked to phone booth-like privacy pods to make calls or just get a bit of quiet. Now, one maker of such booths is testing sensors that can track workers' stress levels to help companies detect employee angst.

With clients including Nvidia Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Unilever Plc, Finland's Framery Oy is one of the biggest worldwide sellers of privacy booths, a staple of post-pandemic offices and one of the fastest-growing segments of the office-furniture market.

Framery's engineers have found a way to embed sensors into the booths' seats that track the vital signs "- heart and breathing rates "- of those who sit inside, to detect if, say, the salespeople are getting frazzled. The service isn't ready to roll out to customers yet, but with burnout rife inside of organizations, Framery Chief Executive Officer Samu HAllfors is convinced he's onto something.

"The idea of having an early-warning signal on the sentiment of an organization "- it's quite interesting," said HAllfors, who co-founded Framery in 2010. "Organisations do employee engagement surveys just twice a year. What if we could give you a heads-up early on?"

The technology, though, raises questions about collecting medical information about employees, potentially without their consent and lacking a clear connection to their role. HAllfors said he's well aware of those concerns, and insists that the data is anonymized and won't drill down to individuals. But experts in privacy and ethics said there's no guarantee that Framery's clients won't try to do exactly that. Any such tracking could run afoul of health-privacy laws, some of them recently passed or strengthened as states reckon with the fallout from the US Supreme Court's 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"It's one thing to share your heart rate with your doctor but it's a privacy violation for it to be known by your workplace," said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. "I don't see how that won't eventually get down to the individual level."

Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, agreed: "I am very leery of anyone's promise that they can protect data. Who's to say there won't be a bad actor? The goal can seem reasonable, but there are unintended consequences."

Framery isn't even sure if it can overcome such hurdles. "Whether we offer it to our customers is still undecided," HAllfors said, due to "the privacy question. There is so much we have not figured out."

Framery's project comes as states including Illinois and Washington have enacted more expansive health-privacy laws, seeking to close loopholes that allow non-health-care organizations (or hackers) to collect or sell individuals' information. More such legislation is coming, according to Steven Stransky, a partner and co-chair of the privacy and cyber-security practice group at law firm Thompson Hine. That could make it tougher for Framery to sell its monitors, if it ever chose to.

For HAllfors, the goal was to find a way for organizations to detect increased stress among their employees before it manifests in burnout or quitting. Disgruntled employees cost US companies an estimated $1.9 trillion in lost productivity last year, according to Gallup, and in recent years employers have flocked to new services that promise a window into workers' wellbeing. Culture Amp Ltd., whose software helps companies like Salesforce Inc. and McDonald's Corp. track employee sentiment, has been valued at more than $1 billion, while similar firms like Glint and Peakon have been acquired in recent years by Microsoft's LinkedIn unit and Workday Inc., respectively.

Framery Labs, a skunk works inside the company that dreams up new projects, at first thought to track how much employees laugh during meetings, but then decided to go a step further and put pressure-sensitive foil into the pod's seat. Sensors in the foil capture blood pumping through vessels in the buttocks when people sit in its pods, and Framery built an algorithm to convert and analyze those pulse readings to ferret out variations that could signal that people are getting more or less agitated.

Framery tested the sensors among some of its own employees last year, putting big stickers on the pods to alert employees, and found that stress levels on its finance team rose at the end of the quarter, then went back down after the quarter closed. Tomi Nokelainen, the head of Framery Labs, said he didn't "hear a whisper" about privacy concerns from employees during the test: "They were quite interested to see the results."