UHV faculty member uses heart monitors to study stress in workplace

Olga Chapa, an associate professor of management in the University of Houston-Victoria School of Business Administration, is the lead researcher of a group of three for a project that will help reduce the amount of stress experienced in the workplace. The premise is to help companies lower the cost of health care and workplace turnover.

Olga Chapa

“We’re using what we call heart rate variability to determine whether the body is stressed while someone is working,” Chapa said. “One of my co-authors is Dr. Gloria Mireles of McAllen, who is a practicing neurologist, and the other is Mary Triana, a professor of management for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”

They will be using the Actiheart-5, a software application that analyzes heart rate variability, which is created by the company CamNtech. Individuals wear the Actiheart-5 throughout the day, then data is collected from the device. The company sent Dennis McCarthy, a technician, and approximately $10,000 worth of equipment free of charge for the pilot study, which will be used toward a grant application for further funding.

“They were fascinated with our interest and how we can measure the amount of anxiety in the workplace,” Chapa said about CamNtech. “They’ve never seen any study of its kind before.”

Anxiety studies have been ongoing. This study has been conducted for about 18 months so far. The team has been studying five people. The research they are doing is first of its kind, and they have only just begun, Chapa said.

The project is very expensive, but it is worth it, she said. The use of just one apparatus is close to $2,000. The team decided to focus their study in the health care industry first, more particularly in the emergency room where the stress levels are high. They would like to expand their research to stress levels of law enforcement officers and firefighters.

Chapa chose the subject because it relates to the field of management, and anxiety is one of her areas of study.

“My research is focused on management topics, and employee well-being is one of the areas,” she said. “Anxiety is costing millions of dollars in lost productivity. Anxiety at work is causing major problems in all kinds of organizational-related areas – such as decision making – globally. In America, 18 percent of adults are causing productivity losses for organizations and costing about $13 billion a year. If you consider anxiety as the center of other disorders, nearly 40 million adults are affected by anxiety. It has become a huge problem. In organizations, employers need to consider employees’ well-being. Because anxiety affects productivity, you want to attack it head-on.”

Chapa said organizations could consider having employees take a survey to measure employee anxiety. This would allow them to get a broad picture of anxiety in the workplace.

This study takes a more specific approach by measuring the individuals’ heart rates while they’re working, Chapa said. From the time participants clock in to work to the time they clock out, they use the Actiheart-5 apparatus. Instead of determining whether the employees are experiencing anxiety broadly, what this study does is focus on each individual actual heart rate variability to determine when the body is in a resting or non-resting state.

“You will be able tell when the employee is experiencing anxiety in real time,” Chapa said. “You will be able to state specifically, this is where the anxiety is, while they are performing tasks. The organization will be able to modify the job tasks and modify what it is that the employees will be doing. Maybe even get rid of it completely.”

When the individuals wear the Actiheart-5 throughout the day, it is measuring the autonomic nervous system. Chapa said this is when the individual is moving around and when they’re resting. The ideal result involves a balance between resting and non-resting stages.

“We normally don’t have that balance,” she said. “We are on overdrive. We are going to be showing that through heart rate variability, and that’s when we will determine when the individual is experiencing levels of anxiety that keep the body from functioning properly.”

The body produces hormones, adrenaline and cortisone, which cause high blood pressure, increased heart rates, sweaty palms and other symptoms. That’s when the body is in stress mode, Chapa said.

“Some stress mode is OK, but too much of it isn’t good,” she said. “The heart is the main organ that feels all of the negative parts of anxiety. Therefore, cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks are increasingly associated with stress, particularly anxiety.”

Chapa said she has been teaching management classes at UHV since 2009. Originally from the Rio Grande Valley, Chapa earned her doctorate in business administration and international business at the University of Texas-Pan American, which is now called the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. She enjoys her life in Victoria and is proud to teach at UHV.

“I love the destination,” Chapa said. “I love the students. I love the environment. It’s so historic. I like the idea that UHV is always evolving, and there are always new strategies. When I started it, was only a two-year-program. I was around when it started during the expansion.”

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.

Lisa Shapiro, Special to UHV