Companies are tuning in to stress
Companies are turning to computer technologies that put relief
at employees' fingertips
By Kimberly S. Johnson, Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007
Mike Giovanni works in a stressful environment. As a transport
engineering manager for Verizon Wireless in Denver, he's a
technician tasked with maintaining and expanding the company's
cellphone network in the Rocky Mountain region.
But when the stress becomes too much to bear, he uses relaxation
techniques he perfected with a computer program.
"We're a 24-7-365 telecommunications company. We have our busy
times and get our ups and downs," he said. "The program helps
you learn some of the mechanical triggers (of stress)."
The program he's referring to uses a finger- or ear-pulse
monitor that plugs into the USB slot of a personal computer, and
a corresponding software application that rates heart rhythms to
chart how stressed users are.
Workplace stress is a growing problem in companies worldwide.
Employee stress is taking a $300 billion annual toll on U.S.
businesses, according to the National Institute of Occupational
Safety and Health. In 2005, $310 million was spent on
stress-related programs, according to a study by Marketdata
Enterprises, an independent market research publisher and
consulting firm. That group expects costs to climb 6 percent by
However, technology is playing an increasing role in helping
workers combat stress. At Verizon Wireless, Giovanni's boss,
Wanda Oppenheim, is focused on helping her employees manage
workplace stress. To that end, she teamed up with Laura Belsten,
founder and president of CEO Partnership, a Denver-based
executive coaching and leadership development firm.
Belsten is using software called emWave PC Stress Relief System,
developed by HeartMath LLC, a Boulder Creek, Calif., company,
that lets people easily receive biological feedback on stress
levels at their desks.
HeartMath was founded in 1997 and its computer programs have
been used by more than 10,000 executives, managers, staffers,
physicians, educators, students, health professionals and
"We developed a consumer-oriented heart-rhythm feedback tool
that took something powerful out of the hands of medicine and
put it into the hands of people," said Howard Martin, executive
vice president for HeartMath.
Last year, the company introduced a portable version of its
emWave software, a device that users can carry around to
periodically check their heart rate.
Belsten said she looked to HeartMath's solution because she
wanted to give her clients an easy way to identify and manage
stress comfortably. She has also worked with companies such as
Qwest and Xcel Energy and is certified to use HeartMath's
software and stress-reduction training program.
Software over yoga
"Many of my clients wouldn't be caught dead at a yoga class,"
she said. "I went out looking for something that was
Coaches like Belsten say there's a need for creative ways to
help clients battle stress, a top problem in the workplace,
particularly among top executives.
"There's a bit of a silent epidemic," said Kay Cannon, president
of the International Coaches Federation. "You do see some
coaches using technology solutions."
Cannon said her organization has been approached by Logisense
LLC, a Fort Collins-based company that alerts office workers
when their stress levels reach a certain threshold. The
company's software monitors stress by a temperature and sweat
sensor on the side of a specially fitted mouse.
Logisense's tools differ from HeartMath's in that the Logisense
monitor is always on and alerts workers in a small window at the
bottom of the PC screen when they're stressed. The emWave
program must be booted up each time -- along with wearing the
finger or ear sensor.
Logisense's alerts then prompt users to participate in one- to
two-minute stress-reduction exercises, said Chris Stockinger,
chief technology officer for the company."
"It's not meant to interrupt people's work flow," he said.
"We're interested in the bottom line of the organization. We
want to help them increase effectiveness, job satisfaction and
reduce health-care costs."
However, all of these techniques have short-term effects and
don't "begin to scratch the surface" of long-term mental health,
said S. Mark Kopta, chairman of the psychology department at the
University of Evansville in Indiana. He's developed Web-based
and PDA-based tools that let users answer questions to assess
their mental health.
"We're a very data-oriented society; people are looking at
numbers about themselves all the time," he said. "That's good.
But at what level do you want to look at mental health and
There's a certain amount of "faddishness" around ways to reduce
stress, similar to dieting, said Peter Buttrick, head of the
cardiology division at the University of Colorado Health
Making major lifestyle changes such as exercising, moderating
foods you eat and eliminating things that are stressful, are key
to long-term effects.
"Stress is a part of people's lives. You can't avoid it, but
you can try to manage it," he said. "These are big issues, not
things that can be approximated by a small electronic device."
Staff writer Kimberly S. Johnson can be reached at