For bankers enduring work week wear and tear, wearables to the rescue

Ian MacKenzie_resized
Ian MacKenzie of BNP Paribas learned about how he handles pressure
after participating a study that used a wearable to track his stress level. 

Ian Mackenzie considered himself a laid-back kind of guy, someone who could typically let things at work roll off his back.

But then Mackenzie, head of pension and benefits for the U.K. region of Paris-based BNP Paribas, took part in a workplace stress study with a wristband wearable and a mobile app that measured his heart rate and other physiological factors—joining roughly 500 of BNP’s U.K. employees.

What Mackenzie learned surprised him: Though he thought he wasn’t stressed, his body was telling him otherwise.

“I was one of the people who believed that I didn’t really get too stressed under pressure, but the app showed that my body was actually showing signs of being physiologically stressed at a higher level than I thought it would,” he says.

As Mackenzie and his peers can attest, pressures abound in the banking world at every level. Executives face endless imperatives to make smart decisions that support stakeholders, staff and consumers. Employees deal with significant sums of money; tech teams hustle to stay ahead of hackers and malware attacks. And the trading staff? That type-A grind is old as the U.S. banking system itself.

But the key to getting every strata of a financial institution to keep calm and carry on is finally at hand—or more accurately, at wrist.

The wristband wearables study, conducted by London-based BioBeats in conjunction with the University of Surrey and AXA Insurance Co., also measured stress after breathing exercises. Mackenzie notes it proved useful in reducing his physiological symptoms of stress.

“I also learned to take more breaks,” he says. “When you’re busy, it’s challenging. But even if you take just a few minutes out and do some deep breathing, it can be refreshing and help you be more productive afterward.”

BioBeats’ chief executive David Plans says that the study’s researchers were primarily sought to gauge whether physical “interventions” conducted through smartphone and wearable technologies could help employees manage their stress effectively.

“Within that rather encompassing goal, we wanted to understand specifically whether biofeedback exercises such as breathing exercises could have a measurable effect on overall stress levels after the exercises, how long would that effect last and what kind of difference it would make in a person’s day,” Plans says.

The study found a 23 percent reduction in stress levels after the invention, as measured by differences in heart rate variability. It might seem the opposite of conventional belief, but when you’re under stress your heartbeat becomes more regular as the body strives to counter it. When someone is not stressed, though, the distance between heartbeats is more variable, Plans says. Three and a half hours after the intervention, the researchers on average still saw some reduction in stress.

The researchers also tried to measure whether people’s perception of their own stress and productivity would be affected by participating in the trial and taking part in that exercise.

“If they labeled, managed and journaled stress in ways that might not have before,” he says, “would their own perception of their job and their performance change?”

The study found that overall, the participants’ perception of stress changed significantly. In the control group, there were people whose heart rate showed they were really stressed, but perceived a lower stress level.

By Fridays, that perception had dropped further—but their bodies felt increasing stress, which surprised the researchers.

“So the questions of whether people can make a difference after feedback and whether we can measure perceived stress over time was answered: yes to both,” Plans says. “But people will have to overcome their own internal biases about perceptions of stress.”

BioBeats is currently redesigning the tools within the app so that people can gain insight from the intervention data and better manage their stress. The firm is also building a machine learning platform to better understand the data from the trial to actually forecast stress levels.

“That way, people can better ride ‘the curve’ of their autonomous nervous system stress levels to drive optimal performance—and they can also better determine what causes their performance to dwindle,” he says. “In other words, they can better determine when they are making things harder for themselves, and when they are making things easier.”

The updated app for consumers is in the launch process and an enhanced version with dashboard intelligence and forecasting will release in January. In February or March, BioBeats plans to release and app designed for corporate use—which should prove a boon for banks beyond BNP. But first, the technology will get a workout on a trial basis with three or four clients (including BNP).

AXA Insurance is working with BioBeats to model risk analysis as it strives to understand how biometric trials in occupational health “could intersect” with life insurance, health insurance and healthcare. Via biometrics from wearables, awareness of health problems could rise before any diagnosis, Plans says. The key: measuring elevated stress levels that don’t recede. The technology could also bolster employee wellness, a gateway to lower premiums.

“Our intention is to forecast so people can be more preventative with their health, as managing stress can be the tip of the iceberg of managing well-being,” he says.

Once BioBeats develops a commercial product, BNP is considering rolling it out to more staff, Mackenzie says. BNP employs more than 189,000 people in about 80 countries; its U.S. units include Bank of the West in San Francisco and First Hawaiian Bank in Honolulu.

“People who manage their stress are more productive, which helps the organization get better results,” Mackenzie says. “So it pays for us to help them. However, a lot of industries have staff under pressure, and all organizations need to manage the costs of that potential pressure on their staff.”

Mackenzie’s department has received recognition, both internally and externally, for launching a number of wellness initiatives, including onsite health assessments and education on improving screening results, onsite musculo-physiological therapy and telemedicine for back joint aches and pain.

The efforts even extend to genetic testing and advanced screenings for breast cancer and various other diseases—all at little or no cost to the employees.

“It’s important for the organization to look after employees’ well-being, and we’re really looking at new innovative things that we can bring to employees,” Mackenzie says. And from his own participation in the BioBeats study, it’s obvious that he walks his talk—or, if you prefer, wears it proudly.

A contributor to BAI Banking Strategies, Katie Kuehner-Hebert has more than two decades experience writing about financial services topics that include retail and commercial banking products and services; payments systems: mergers and acquisitions; and security and fraud issues. She is based in Running Spring, Calif.