Prevention: Digital tools for the digital workplace

Interview with Oliver Hasselmann, Research & Development Consultant, BGF Gmbh Institute for Workplace Health Promotion


Added stress or relief? The digitization of the workplace is both since we can be better and more often reached and - at least in some areas - also be gradually replaced by a machine. But digital tools are also able to support us by measuring our body’s basic functions and warning us if we endanger our health.

Photo: Smiling man with glasses and short brown hair - Oliver Hasselmann; Copyright: BGF Institute

Oliver Hasselmann; ©BGF Institute

In this interview with, Oliver Hasselmann explains how health promotion is changing at the workplace 4.0 and what role wearables are playing in this.

Mr. Hasselmann, what challenges does the workplace 4.0 present for companies and employees in terms of prevention and workplace health promotion?

Oliver Hasselmann: All work fields are in a process of change. On the one hand, this pertains to working conditions, job design and work organization. On the other hand, brand-new aspects we have never seen before are added to this, such as the interface between closely interacting humans and robots. Ergonomic resources such as exoskeletons or sensors worn on the body also impact the working conditions 4.0. Advances in information and communication technology that liberate work from time and space constraints are also significant. When employees are subject to intense flexibilization, it can lead to psychological stress. That said, if things are properly designed, they can also improve the work-life balance and promote wellbeing. On the whole, the developments in terms of employee health, prevention and health promotion are very ambivalent. Whether we accept these new aspects as a challenge or opportunity comes down to the design.

Recently, the "Prevention 4.0" project was launched under the auspices of the Institute for Workplace Health Promotion. What is its objective?

Hasselmann: At the start of the project, we are identifying those action fields that have an influence on prevention and health promotion during the course of digitization and processes in the workplace 4.0. In a second step, measures and instruments are being developed that help in creating good and health promoting working conditions and relationships in digitization. The project will run until the end of 2018. We will conduct between 70 and 100 interviews with experts during this time. There will also be a future workshop series with representatives of companies and associations, politics and science as well as a quantitative survey of corporate physicians and occupational health and safety experts.

We will consolidate the findings of our work in guidelines for companies. Our focus here is not on the major industrial enterprises that are in part already more advanced when it comes to the subject of "4.0". Our focus is on small and medium-sized enterprises and skilled craft businesses to whom we offer help with digitization.

Why are well-known prevention measures ultimately no longer enough?

Hasselmann: The working conditions in the workplace 4.0 are changing drastically. Whole value chains are completely automated, manage themselves and reach optimized decisions in real time. This has a tremendous impact on the working conditions for employees because it changes the roles: does the machine now dictate the workday or are humans still in control? Does man actually still have the chance to intervene? How do scopes of action for humans change? These are just some of the questions resulting from the 4.0 discussion. Prevention needs to recognize these changes early on and detect new types of stress and strain as well as identify new resources to promote employee health. The goal in the workplace 4.0. is also to reduce stress and promote resources.

Photo: Carpenter works with a bench saw; Copyright: Volkmar

Wearables could not only be able to measure the vital signs of employees, they could also improve safety: Sensors worn by an employee could unlock machines only while he is close or shut them down in case of danger; © Volkmar

A portion of the project also involves digital tools and wearables. What possibilities do they offer in the area of prevention?

Hasselmann: The possibilities of wearables are as varied as their appearance but are also ambivalent.

One example of this are smart glasses: they can assist employees with complex work processes by indicating essential information in their visual field and guiding them. However, research has also shown that the regular or prolonged use of smart glasses results in health hazards like headaches, vision issues and lack of concentration.

Self-tracking, the measuring of your own vital signs, is especially interesting for health promotion. Many people already do this on a voluntary basis in their spare time. At the workplace, this might mean measuring stress parameters the employer or even a program can use to schedule employee assignments - depending on how well employees are able to work under pressure. These types of parameters also provide the opportunity to optimally configure health promoting services, to manage them individually or tailor them to a target group and thus organize them more effectively.

Occupational health and safety can also be supported. Sensors in protective clothing could be linked to machines at the workplace. They would only start up if the clothing is worn properly and the employee is within a certain distance from the workplace. Another interesting example are pants worn by lumberjacks that communicate with the chainsaw via their embedded sensors. If the chainsaw gets too close to the pants, the sensors turn it off.

Do you believe data protection is in danger because of this?

Hasselmann: Needless to say, there is also an ambivalence between total transparency and employer control on the one hand and very helpful and beneficial data that can be used to promote a healthy lifestyle on the other. Here in Germany, unions, works councils and employee committees are able to minimize or regulate this type of control.

In other countries such as in Asia and South America for example, it is already a well-established practice under the buzzword "people analytics" for employers to collect data from employees and analyze it. We can act on the assumption that this is not done to benefit the employees but rather to increase productivity. Ultimately, this is very short-sighted since qualified employees are the essential asset that ensures sustainability, innovativeness, and competitiveness.

Photo: Timo Roth; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Timo Roth and translated from German by Elena O'Meara.