Tracking employee well-being with big data: Workplace utopia or dystopia?

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A number of factors can impact employee productivity, including how well a worker’s skills and training match the needs of the job, the quality of tools available for doing a particular job, managerial effectiveness (guidance and feedback), and an individual employee’s own drive and determination.

While personal drive and determination arguably are the most important factors in making enterprise employees productive, they can be severely undermined when an employee is facing physical or emotional challenges (depression, stress, anxiety) that sap their attention, focus, energy, and spirit.

But just as enterprises now leverage big data through predictive analytics to help them anticipate potential problems and complications on their business and operations, so too might some organizations collect and analyze digital data surrounding employee activities to assess worker well-being and intervene if there is evidence an employee is struggling with issues that may negatively affect individual performance and reliability. Some enterprises already are doing this with fitness trackers. But as Carolyn Axtell, senior lecturer in work psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, writes, “there are other data sources that might help to pinpoint well-being risks as they emerge.”

“For instance, growing workload might be highlighted in part of the organisation through analysis that reveals rising work hours, fewer breaks, logging in more often at weekends (or during holidays) and more sick days,” Axtell says. “Emails could also be processed using sentiment analysis for language that reveals well-being problems. This could provide an early warning sign, allowing the problem to be fixed before employees reach breaking point.”

Sure sounds promising! By using big data generated by the employees themselves, organizations can head off potential performance problems that could hurt the business while also helping workers improve their personal well-being. This includes changing work processes that may be the source of an employee’s stress, anxiety, and under-performance. At its most effective, big data analysis could be used collaboratively to build a sense of mutual trust, respect, commitment, and caring between enterprises and their employees. Is that not the workplace utopia we all seek?

Unfortunately, big data also can be used in unhealthy ways by enterprises less concerned with employee well-being (and the enterprise’s role in it) and more concerned with dropping the hammer on perceived laggards.

“If data is collected within a culture of fear and distrust, then concerns about ‘Big Brother’ and how data might be used could create an environment where employee well-being suffers dramatically,” Axtell writes. “In such a culture, employees might fear that data will be used to get rid of them if they are not considered healthy enough or not coping with the work.”

In workplaces where humans could be replaced by machines and bots that don’t take sick days, this looms as a legitimate concern. I’d argue that the enterprises using big data collaboratively to help employees will fare better in the long run than those that use it to ruthlessly monitor and expose workers who are aren’t performing to expectations, even if the organization may be partially or mostly responsible because of poor management, working tools and conditions, or training.

Bottom line: Big data, like all technologies, is a tool. Whether a workplace is a utopia or dystopia still comes down to us humans.

RELATED LINKS

Is employee experience as important as customer experience?

Using digital tools to predict employee moods (And is this even a good idea?)

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