Exploring Big Data to Examine Employee Health and Wellbeing: A Seminar Series

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Management School


The proposed seminar series aims to critically explore the possibilities of using Big Data for assessing health and wellbeing risks within organisations and for advancing knowledge on health and wellbeing prediction. This proposal addresses a significant gap in wellbeing and health research and fits well with the national agenda on health and wellbeing. This agenda was stimulated by Dame Carol Black's review in 2008 which has fed into the Health, Work and Wellbeing cross-government initiative that aims to improve the general health and wellbeing of the working-age population.

The proposed seminar series also contributes to the ESRC priority area on 'Data'. The series explores the idea of using some of the huge amounts of digitally captured and other data gathered within organisations (such as from network traffic data, use of specific work-based systems, phone calls, emails, web access, and HR systems) as a 'temperature check' of the organisation's health, and to help identify patterns in work practices that might lead to poor health and wellbeing. This organisational data consititutes 'Big Data' because it is large-scale (terabytes or larger), complex and cannot reasonably be managed by traditional data management or analytical tools. Some of this data is starting to be used by organisations to help them understand their employees (e.g., through analysing pay systems and developing effective recruitment strategies). However, increasingly we realise that the potential of this data for enhancing employee health and wellbeing has not been fully explored.

We focus on IT working practices as modern technologies have spawned not only greater flexibility but also greater work intensification and work extension into leisure time. This 'tech pressure' can leave employees with little time to recharge their batteries, leading to poor wellbeing. Data that indicates unhealthy digital work practices could be used to assess the level of workforce health and wellbeing and to highlight organisations 'at risk' of ill-health. For instance, organisational or departmental data that indicates high levels of work intensification, insufficient breaks or holidays from work or too much time spent at the computer screen, when combined could indicate risk of ill-health and poor wellbeing due to physical and psychological strain and lack of recovery from work. Such data, gathered over time, could also provide insight to the patterns of digital behaviour that relate to health and wellbeing. Thus, findings from Big Data could help us to develop an improved understanding of employee wellbeing processes and provide a unique opportunity to track and combine indicators of wellbeing over time. Of course, such data has its limitations and needs to be collected with employee consent, and must consider ethical and legal concerns. Therefore, this area needs to be critically considered from different disciplinary perspectives.

The seminar series therefore brings together a multidisciplinary network of academics (from Work Psychology, Sociology, Information Science and Law) and organisational representatives from across the UK and beyond to investigate and debate the possibilities, benefits and disbenefits of using Big Data in this way. The multidisciplinary social science focus makes this appropriate for ESRC funding as it falls outside the remit of a single discipline. Each seminar will focus on a key question relating to the evidence for the relationship between IT working practises and ill-health and poor wellbeing, examining the indicators and assessment of health and wellbeing, what data is being used by organisations and what its possibilities are, the benefits and disbenefits of using data for such purposes and the employee perspective on data and wellbeing. The final seminar will also engage policy makers and employee/professional groups within the debate about the lessons learned from the seminar series and directions for future research.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries and Users
The key beneficiaries and users of the findings from this seminar series will be those interested in employee health and wellbeing and those interested in uses of 'Big Data', including organisational representatives (from public and private sector), politicians, civil servants, policy advisers, professional and employee groups, unions and the media. We have already engaged organisational representatives within discussions about this seminar series application and are involving them in it as either speakers or participants (e.g., IBM, University HR, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, O2, Sheffield City Council). Other organisational representatives and members from professional groups and employers groups will also be invited to the seminars (e.g., from British Psychological Society, CIPD, Westminster Employment Forum) alongside parliamentary groups and political/policy making representatives (e.g., Internet and communications technology forum, Health & Safety Executive, The Work Foundation). The views of these non-academic participants and speakers will be incorporated into the findings of the seminar series and will help to shape future research on this topic (through inviting them to be part of a steering group, and to participate in discussions at the seminars and on our website). Such interaction with beneficiaries and users will enable knowledge transfer in both directions, keeping the resulting research questions applied and grounded in real problems whilst also disseminating the academic research that has been done in this area which has implications for using digital data and Big Data for examining employee health and wellbeing. Beyond those directly involved in the seminar series, there will be wider beneficiaries within society more generally who will be reached via the press releases and social media outputs of the seminar series. The outcomes of the seminar series will be of most relevance to those who are interested in or have a role specifically related to employee health and wellbeing and the use of 'data' within their organisation.

The beneficiaries and users will benefit from being directly involved in the seminar series itself. This will be through attending and being involved in discussions at the seminars and/or through taking part in online discussions and receiving summaries, viewing weblogs and podcasts of the seminar presentations and discussions. They will also have access to the final report that outlines the lessons learned from the seminar series and areas for future research. They will benefit by learning from academics and non-academics about issues relating to the examination of employee health and wellbeing through digital data and Big Data, which they can incorporate into their own policy and practice. The impact will also reach wider than those who were directly involved in the seminar series as through our social media presence, practitioner pieces (e.g., in The Conversation, Guardian Comment) and press releases we aim to reach a wider audience. In all outputs we will provide details of our website so that others beyond the seminar participants can benefit from the summaries, reports, weblogs, podcasts and details of ongoing activities and research.

Those beneficiaries that become part of the steering group at the end of the seminar series will have the opportunity for ongoing influence of the research agenda and will receive the most direct impact from any future research conducted in this area. This is because they will have the most direct relationship with the researchers such that the academics can help to influence their organisational practice and policy making more directly.
Description Achievement 1: New knowledge has been generated through the seminar series and subsequent special issue. The findings from the series/special issue highlighted six key lessons related to the topic of using Big Data to assess and monitor employee wellbeing.
1) There is a requirement for collaboration across disciplines and organisational departments to access relevant data sources and appropriate analytical skills and theoretical frameworks.
2) Although there are likely wellbeing indicators within digitally captured and other organisational data that could be analysed, there is still the need for qualitative interpretation of the data to develop a more nuanced understanding of the situation before interventions are developed.
3) Ethical, psychological and legal considerations highlight the requirement for employee ownership and involvement within the process of data collection and interpretation to ensure employee consent and buy-in.
4) Using Big Data to assess employee wellbeing needs to take place within a culture of care, support and trust if it is to be of benefit to employees as well as to organisations. Such a culture of care would be one in which organisations focus on and take responsibility to improve work processes for enhancing wellbeing, rather than solely emphasising the employee's responsibility to improve their own health.
The special issue has confirmed and extended the findings from the seminar series in two further ways:
5) The tensions and opposing scenarios within this area of Big Data and employee wellbeing exist interdependently, with the potential for good and bad outcomes occurring simultaneously.
6) There is a need for organisations to invest in employee involvement and co-design expertise. The ability to involve employees and other relevant stakeholders in these processes is likely to be as important as the data analytics expertise required to make such projects a reality.

Achievement 2: A new inter-disciplinary research network has also been developed through the seminar series. Regular updates are provided on the seminar series and outputs via a group email which consists of the CI's, speakers and attendees from the seminars (originally 65 individuals from both academia and organisations/policy makers - including HSE, CIPD, MOD, BT, IBM, Police) and several members on the list have indicated an interest in being involved in research projects going forward. This network has been extended through wider dissemination efforts, such as via the project Twitter account, website, presentations, special issue and publications.

Achievement 3: A research agenda was developed at the end of the final seminar. Four key research ideas were agreed as a way forward for examining the use of Big Data for assessing employee wellbeing in practice within organisations.
Research idea 1: Study of Organisational/CEO perceptions of using Big Data for Employee Wellbeing and sources of data available within organisations. This could result in a mapping of relevant data sources commonly available that could be drawn upon.
Research idea 2: Examining Employee/Union views of using Big Data for Employee Wellbeing. What are their hopes and fears about using Big Data for wellbeing purposes and under what circumstances could using Big Data in this way have positive effects?
Research idea 3: Development of a transferrable set of values and principles to guide the ethical use of Big Data for examining employee wellbeing.
Research idea 4: Testing the use of Big data for examining employee wellbeing within organisations. Organisational and wellbeing programme data could be used to examine the validity and usefulness of different wellbeing indicators for informing policies and interventions.
Exploitation Route The findings from the seminar series (and subsequent special issue) have been disseminated via multiple channels to reach a wider audience of academics and practitioners. These channels include a project Twitter account and website. The website contains seminar materials (including presentation slides, interviews, summaries of findings) and link to our article in The Conversation (which has reached nearly 11,000 readers from USA, UK, Australia, India and several other countries) and a link to the special issue. Other channels include presentations to non-academics (i.e., at Department of Work and Pensions) and academic audiences (e.g., Academy of Management Big Data Conference, Special Issue in Social Sciences).
The findings of the seminar series can be taken forward by academics (in collaboration with non-academics) to inform new research projects and policy in this area. For instance, the investigators involved in the seminar series (along with others from the network and beyond) have been involved in developing funding applications to examine some of the ideas developed within (or inspired by) the research agenda agreed in seminar 6 or from the special issue. Several members of the network (non-academics and academics) also expressed an interest in being on an advisory board for research going forward. This further research can help to underpin ethical and sustainable policy and practice in relation to the use of Big Data for examining employee wellbeing. The PI has also contributed knowledge gained from the seminar series as a member of the British Standards e-committee on Big Data to influence guidance/standards for organisations.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

URL http://www.dew.group.shef.ac.uk/
Description We have achieved the short term and medium impact goals that we expected as a result of the seminar series. The main non-academic impacts have been related to communication and engagement and raising awareness of issues relating to Big Data and Employee Wellbeing amongst non-academics. Representatives from several different organisations were involved in the seminar series by either presenting or as part of the audience and the discussions. These included IBM, BT, CIPD, DWP, MOD, DSTL, HSL, the HR department of the University of Sheffield, The Work Foundation, South Yorkshire Housing Association, Everyday Juice Limited (Occupational health & wellbeing specialists), Affinity Health at Work (Occupational Health Psychology Consultancy). Participants have expressed how informative and useful they found the presentations and associated discussions within the seminar series. For instance, representatives from Affinity Health at Work said that the seminar series had increased their understanding of Big Data and focussed their attention towards the benefits and pitfalls of its use. This greater awareness has been useful for them when dealing with clients. The HR and wellbeing practitioners at The University of Sheffield and its subsidiary company, Everyday Juice Limited, said that the seminar series offered useful insights into the efficacy of wellbeing metrics. Through their participation it enabled them to better reflect, and subsequently understand, how data can be used to inform management decisions for ill-health prevention, and positively develop their services around the needs of staff for greater participation and engagement. Another area of impact that has occurred as a result of contacts made during the seminar series, is that the PI, Dr. Carolyn Axtell, was selected to be part of a British Standards e-committee on Big Data where she has had the opportunity to influence British Standards policy and guidance to organisations on this topic. As well as impacts from the seminar series itself, there have been a range of outputs from the seminar series that have potential for impact. For instance, a presentation of the findings of the seminar series was delivered at DWP in November 2017. This seminar attracted a range of interest from different functions within the organisation (from HR and operations to data scientists and economists) as well as from outside the organisation (HSE and DfE). Feedback received indicates that the seminar helped to broaden thinking in the area of Big Data and Employee Wellbeing. Further outputs from the seminar series have reached an even wider audience. For instance, our piece in The Conversation, which summarised some key findings of the seminar series, has reached an international audience of nearly 11,000 readers (as of end Feb 2021). Readership extends from France, US, UK, Australia, and elsewhere in the world. Reactions have been evidenced through Twitter, such as: 'Should a company collect data on its workers, and how much is too much?' (Office furniture supplier, Canada - April 2018) - 'Big data about the workplace could reduce stress, depression & anxiety - or it might create an Orwellian workplace' (individual Tweeter from Luxembourg - April 2018). A further key outcome of the seminar series has been a special issue in the journal 'Social Sciences' on Big Data & Employee Wellbeing published in 2019. This special issue has confirmed and extended the findings from the seminar series and has highlighted the need for future research to help enhance understanding of how organisations can balance the competing perspectives within their data analytics projects as well as the need for organisations to invest in employee participation and co-design expertise for involving relevant stakeholders in data analytics projects. Future research could examine how these co-design processes might be facilitated within organisations, and what works to build trust in different types of organisation with different cultures and structures. The further insights from the special issue could inspire new lines of enquiry relating to the use of Big Data and data analytics for enhancing employee wellbeing. In the long term, we expect additional impact as a result of our research activities that have been inspired by the seminar series. A key aim of the seminar series was to inspire new research and from this, we expect there to be further impacts for users who will be more directly involved. For instance, the seminar series informed the ESRC first round large grant proposal 'Contexts of Automation: inequality in work, education and training (led by Prof. Bridgette Wessels) which aimed to have impact on the development of skills training and work management in automated industries in the UK and overseas. However, unfortunately this grant application was unsuccessful. The series also informed a successful Barometern and Gotamedia foundation one year grant on data driven journalism and personalisation of news which will focus on the impact of big data on journalism practices and work (Wessels is project intellectual lead). It is expected that the seminar series will have an indirect impact on journalism practice via this project. Being involved in the seminar series has also influenced the impact activities conducted by of some of the academics who participated (such as Prof. Sara Eriksen, Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden). Prof. Eriksen said that the seminar series and associated discussions has influenced her thinking in terms of the usefulness of Big Data for informing the design of supportive mobile services in health care work as well as for supporting healthy lifestyles among patients and health care employees. This helped to inform a presentation she gave at the annual eHealth conference in Gothenburg, VITALIS in April 2018 (this is the largest annual Nordic eHealth conference). Additional projects that have benefitted from insights gained through this seminar series include the Nuffield Foundation funded project: 'Me and my Big Data' where Prof. Bridgette Wessels is a CI, and the UKRI funded Productivity Institute, where Prof. Bridgette Wessels is also a member of the team. A new Made Smarter centre 'Materials Made Smarter' where Carolyn Axtell is a CI, will also benefit from insights related to digitisation and employee wellbeing gained through the seminar series. The Seminar Series Investigators continue to explore new opportunities for impactful research inspired by the seminar series and special issue. The Conversation article and our special issue led to an increase in followers to the seminar series twitter account (@DEW_Seminars) and directed people to our webpage. Our website continues to be in operation which has materials from the seminar series, summary of the findings and updates on activities (http://www.dew.group.shef.ac.uk/).
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description British Standards e-Committee on Big Data
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to new or Improved professional practice
URL https://shop.bsigroup.com/products/big-data-guidance-on-data-intensive-projects/standard
Description Made Smarter Innovation
Amount £4,969,320 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/V061798/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2021 
End 02/2025
Description Sheffield Solutions Lunchtime Seminar Series (Department for Work and Pensions, Sheffield) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Dissemination of seminar series findings at the DWP lunchtime seminar series network which included a range of participants from the Department (Operations, HR, Policy, Strategy, economists, social researchers, statisticians and operational researchers, data scientists) as well as external members of the network from HSE and DfE. The presentation sparked a lot of interest, questions and discussions and led on to conversations about possible research collaborations in this area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017