At the beginning of the pandemic, before vaccines and during all the uncertainties, healthcare workers were faced with devastating challenges which resulted in high levels of employee burnout. In this interview, we hear from two researchers- Kristin Scott and Sara Krivacek- at Clemson’s School of Management about their valuable work studying frontline healthcare workers at the height of the pandemic. They worked alongside Bryan Edwards of Oklahoma State University, Craig Wallace of Clemson University, and Stacy Trent from Denver Health. We learn about their experience collecting both self-reported data as well as objective biomarker data through the use of wearables, painting a richer and more complete picture of their participants’ experiences.
Study Background and Inspiration
Can you give us a high-level overview of what your research study explored?
Kristin: Sure! Our study examined the wellbeing of frontline health care workers during the beginning of the pandemic. We wanted to see how the long hours (including shift work and overtime) were affecting their overall health. We observed 100 frontline workers over a period of 7 days. They were tasked with completing a brief wellness questionnaire before, during and after each work shift, as well as wearing their Garmin smartwatches continuously throughout the 7 day period.
What inspired you to pursue the study of stress, shift work, and employee wellness in particular?
Kristin: At the heart and soul of it, we wanted to study resiliency during the pandemic. The first few months of the pandemic were especially hard on frontline health care workers. Remember, this was at a time before vaccines and before we had a much better understanding of this virus. We wanted to learn more about what these individuals were doing to stay resilient, refreshed, and resistant during this period, as well as unearth factors that were directly contributing to stress or burnout.
We’ve been really impressed with how [the Labfront analytics team] have been able to quickly and accurately get information synthesized for us, and very open to understanding what we need.
Using Garmin and Labfront
Why did you choose to use smartwatches in this study? Have you used them in previous research studies?
Kristin: We’ve known a lot about mental reactions to negative and positive stimuli in the workplace, and in this study, we wanted to see if our physiological responses could confirm what we were seeing in terms of people's behaviors and their thought processes. While we’d heard of smartwatches being used to collect physiological data in research studies, this was the first time any one of us had used wristbands in an official study before.
Why did you choose to use Labfront as your data collection and analytics tool, as opposed to other platforms in the field?
Kristin: One of the researchers on our team had used a Garmin before and so had some familiarity with the capabilities of the device. After some research, we learned Garmins had the most options for the least cost. There were cheaper bands on the market, but they weren't very reliable.
As for Labfront, Garmin recommended the service. If we needed assistance with analyzing the data, they suggested we try using your tool, so we looked into it and we're glad we did.
You used our analytics service for your study. What was that process like?
Kristin: We’ve been really impressed at how they've been able to really quickly and accurately get information synthesized for us, and very open to understanding what we need. While I have been doing data analysis for 15 years in my own field, there is a difference when it comes to interpreting what we call “big data”- the physiological data that comes out of these bands.
Understanding what’s required in the analysis phase from researchers with different backgrounds can sometimes be like speaking two different languages; we don’t fully know what the other person is asking for. With the Labfront analytics team, they’ve been able to completely understand our needs and deliver on that, and so that's been really impressive.
Sara: Agree with Kristin! They have so much information that we're not as familiar with, and they know these physiological variables way better than we do. Sometimes, when we’re searching in medical journals, the information might seem a little foreign to us. They really helped bridge that connection with their fantastic communication.
One of our biggest challenges was that our participants' schedules varied so wildly that to know how to manually code the survey data accurately was taking months. The Labfront Analytics team recognized the challenge immediately and effectively communicated how to do it right. Their help has been really invaluable to us.
The incorporation of objective physiological data is able to tell us a richer story of what's really going on with our participants.
Challenges of Using Wearables
What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced when using wearable devices?
Kristin: I would say one challenge we experienced was that some participants weren't as tech savvy and required a bit more support, especially at the beginning. That definitely posed a challenge for us and we tried to help counter this by creating videos and PowerPoints to support them remotely.
Sara: Another challenge was our participants adhering to protocol, which was quite a time-intensive process. They were tasked with completing three daily surveys, as well as opening their Garmin apps to sync their physiological data regularly. This employee demographic had incredibly busy work schedules, working 12 hour shifts in really chaotic environments, and were probably very mentally fatigued, so they may not have had time or just completely forgotten certain tasks.
How we countered that final challenge was by running 20 participants at a time, over a 5 week period, instead of studying all 100 in the same week. That way, we were able to monitor the adherence more closely, and help support or troubleshoot more effectively.
Future of Wearables in Business Research
What do you think the role of wearable technology has in the future of employee wellness research?
Kristin: Broadly speaking, as someone who has studied employee health and wellbeing for decades, I do think that this type of physiological data collection in business research will become more prevalent.
What’s amazing about the fitness bands is they give us objective measures to support what psychology has been telling us for decades. For example, when your boss yells at you, that causes stress, which activates an autonomic response in your body, which in turn harms your overall health. Seeing how those toxic workplace behaviors impact other measures such as your sleep and activity levels can also prove extremely beneficial for future business research.
In general, I think there will be an increasing focus on using technology to further understand anything in the workplace, including human interaction patterns and human behavior.
Sara: I think the incorporation of this objective data will be able to tell us a richer story of what's really going on with our participants. In the past, we primarily relied on subjective data like surveys, but there are limitations to focusing purely on subjective reports. There might also be limitations to focusing solely on objective data, which is why the combination of both will provide researchers with a more complete understanding. Not only can this help support people who are suffering in the moment, it can also align with positive psychology so we can learn how to move people from good to great.
We’re so grateful that Kristin and Sara were able to take the time out of their busy schedules to share their experience investigating frontline worker health using Garmin and Labfront. We’ll be updating this blog piece to link their study and its findings once officially published!
Jessica is the proud mother of Luna the Labfront Shiba and is also on the board of Canadian non-profit PhysioQ, an organization focused on democratizing access to health research. As a former educator, Jessica is passionate about STEM learning and engagement with youth, and is an advocate for the Women and Girls in STEM movement. She has also been a member of the Youth Advisory Board for the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF).