TNO: Tackling work-related stress with the stresscoach app

Each year, more than a million people in the Netherlands risk a burnout – or some other form of mental illness – in the workplace. In 2014, the cost of sickness absenteeism due to work-related stress amounted to 1.8 billion euros. Prevention can save a lot of money. TNO worked with The Performance Experts (an SME) to develop the prototype of the StressCoach app. The app gives health advice that is tailored to the individual.

‘Curing healthy people’. That is the motto of exercise physiologist Henk-Jan Zwolle. He is the Director of Innovation at The Performance Experts, a company in Amsterdam. For many years now, he has been working with athletes to gather data on heart rhythm variability. “I am trying to find out how quickly people recover after taking exercise.”

Avoiding burnout

“We want to use the expertise we have gained from working with elite athletes to help office staff. This is not so much about a training programme; it is more about recovering from the day’s activities. Look, over a million people in the Netherlands suffer from work-related stress. That can lead to a burnout. If you can help to prevent serious stress by offering people personal advice every day, then you can significantly cut the cost of sickness absenteeism. Two years ago, with this in mind, we came up with the idea of the StressCoach app.”

Checking personality and mood

The basic idea behind the app is that users will get effective advice each day, and that this will only take up two minutes of their time. The first step is to fill in a brief validated questionnaire, which will show what type of personality you have. It is a simple fact that short-tempered people respond differently to stress than introverts. You only need to fill in the questionnaire once. From that point onwards, the results will be taken into account using a calculation formula. Each time a measurement is taken, you select the icon that best corresponds to your mood at that moment.

Personalized advice

Only then is your heart rate measured. You just place your index finger on your mobile phone’s camera. A heartbeat pumps more blood through the skin, causing it to change colour slightly and this change is detected by the camera (photoplethysmography). Next, the app provides personalized advice. For instance, ‘You handle stress well. You will easily be able to cope with everything you need to do today. At regular intervals, take a moment to recharge your batteries. That way you will stay in peak condition all day.” Or: ‘If you experience a lot of stress and have poor physical recovery, then a little exercise can help.’

Building a reliable app

Mr Zwolle explains that “We had a good idea of what the app should be able to do, but we lacked the expertise to create it ourselves. So we called in TNO. As an added benefit, we can say that the app has been ‘scientifically validated by TNO’. Victor Kallen, a senior scientist at TNO and a psychophysiologist by training, confirms this. “The StressCoach app is based on around seven different research disciplines. TNO has expertise in all of these areas. There are many apps that measure heart rate and various derivative values, but these are not particularly reliable. If you harness our in-house expertise in the areas of sensor technology, signal processing, data streaming, privacy and mathematics, then you can build a very reliable app indeed. You also need to be able to translate an individual’s personal measurement results into stress factors. We have developed various stress models for this purpose. These generate validated health advice that is tailored to the individual. To date, advice of this kind has been issued on about 680 separate occasions. Our multidisciplinary approach enabled us to succeed, despite the considerable technical challenges involved.”