The new work/life balance: syncing work and nature with wearable tech

Not so long ago, that ‘/’ in the middle of ‘work/life balance’ told you everything you needed to know about the concept. Work was work, and your personal wellbeing was just that: personal.

For better or worse, that line is now being crossed more than ever – even down to the inner world of our bodies. From mindfulness programmes to sponsored fitness drives and even time off balanced against menstruation, workplaces are hungry for fresh innovations that tap into the subconscious rhythms at the very heart of our biology.

And, in our data-obsessed era, wearable tech is leading the charge. But are wearables a fast track to a more harmonious relationship between our working lives and Mother Nature? The jury is still very much out.

The science of sleep?

"I’ll sleep when I’m dead" remains the unspoken mantra of many go-getters. But in fact it may be your productivity that kicks the bucket as a result of long, irregular hours. A 2015 study of 21,000 workers identified a strong link between lack of sleep and plummeting productivity at work.

Could wearables help us optimise our sleep patterns against our hectic schedules? The groundswell of sleep trackers like the Jawbone UP, Beddit Smart and various FitBit models certainly seems to suggest as much, but some experts are more cautious.

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"The neuroscience behind sleep tracking is really still at an early stage," says Christel De Maeyer, a researcher and consultant in personal informatics who has been working in the field since 1989.

While she believes wearables will become more specialized – further reflecting the specific needs of workers – Christel also echoes recent criticism of personal fitness trackers as being inaccurate.

"There’s still a lot of work to do to improve the accuracy of the data," she concurs. "Lots of apps claim to measure REM and deep sleep, but of course you need brain waves for that – just measuring movement and temperature is not enough.

Read: How much does technology mess with your wellbeing?

"Wearable technology in general is a facilitator, not a solution."

The menstrual movement

It’s fair to say menstruation has come right to the fore of the work wellbeing agenda in recent years, backed up by the explosive popularity of apps like Clue, Eve by Glow and the imaginatively titled Period Tracker. For millions of women worldwide, accessible technology is reinventing how they manage their lives around their cycle. A Chinese period app has reportedly been downloaded over 65 million times.

In March 2015 the Bristol-based Coexist became the first UK company to introduce a ‘period policy’, recognising how womens’ ‘monthly visitor’ can play havoc with work and giving them time off if they need it. 

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Alexandra Pope, Co-founder of Red School – the education centre that inspired Coexist’s new policy - thinks wearables could support a shift towards greater awareness of how menstruation affects women’s working lives.

"Any technology that helps women better understand their cycles has to be a good thing," she suggests.

However, smart tech shouldn’t be a substitute for personal knowledge. 

"I do think we all have an innate sense of our bodies – ultimately that’s what we should be developing."

Read: Why you have a duty to share your health data

As ever, wearable tech is part of the puzzle. The LEAF, a stylish health tracker that doubles as a stylish piece of jewellery, helps women keep track of sleep patterns, vitality and, of course, their menstrual cycle.

Mental maths

Wait, what? Wearables to measure your mind? While the thought may conjure up flashbacks to your favourite sci-fi flicks, mental health could be the next frontier for wearables – with enormous potential to impact on our working lives and wellbeing, too.

Cambridge Cognition certainly believes so. The company is currently experimenting with building cognitive assessment software into wearables, with the goal of identifying mental health issues based on user behaviour such as physical activity, sleep patterns and even how often they communicate and use media.

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"Some companies are actively incentivising their employees to live healthier lifestyles. In a similar way, employers could measure mental health," says Noah Konig, Marketing and Communications Manager at Cambridge Cognition.

"For example, if they see cognitive decline linked to heightened stress, they can intervene and get people treatment before further damage is done."

The examined self

Of course, this raises the main ethical quandary that has dogged wearable tech from its earliest days – isn’t our appetite for data measurement tantamount to an invasion of personal space? Furthermore, our bodies and minds alike have evolved over millennia – can wearables really substitute our own, inner knowledge?

For the companies pushing the boundaries of what wearables can achieve, the answer is fairly predictable.

"It’s about empowering individuals to take control of their mental health as well as their physical health," Noah argues.

It’s a compelling stance, but one that seems rooted in the belief that we are strangers to ourselves.

We know that technology can shape our reality in ever more dramatic ways. The question is: What kind of reality do we want?

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages

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