Could fungal computers help ease workplace stress?

Emerging technology, from VR to compostable fungus-based wearable computers, might help alleviate workplace stress – but only as part of a broader package that respects data privacy, has informed consent, and looks at the big picture

Fungal Computing

Every April, Stress Awareness month aims to bring to light the negative effects of workplace anxiety. Awareness, though, may not be the problem. Britain knows it is stressed: half of UK employees say they’re “very” or “fairly” stressed at their jobs, and four in 10 worry about work outside of office hours. At a global level, 65% of employees regularly experience stress or anger daily, according to Gallup.

Too much stress is bad for us, leading to health problems, from insomnia and fatigue to cardiovascular issues and anxiety. With a stonking 78% of employees saying they’d leave their jobs due to stress, according to a report by employee benefits firm Unum UK, this isn’t just a health issue, but an issue for employers struggling to retain talent too. 

In fictional worlds, from the Jetsons to Wall-E, technology has stepped in to do the work for us and make our lives less stressful – with varying results. But despite the prominence of technology in our daily lives, we seem to be more and more stressed each year. Can innovation really help us – or are we doomed to remain stressed forever?

Mushroom for improvement

Leaps in technology, combined with greater understanding of mental health, are encouraging technologists to explore more out-of-the-box approaches to tackling stress. 

Some organisations are experimenting with virtual-reality systems to transport employees to more serene places. 

If that sounds a little dystopian – as when Russian cattle had VR headsets strapped to their heads to relieve bovine anxiety – research suggests that this is actually pretty effective in reducing biochemical stress in humans, albeit only in the short term

Meanwhile, other businesses have built smart ‘neurotech’ headbands that detect brainwaves, allowing wearers to collect data points on their stress levels and plan accordingly. 

We may not have to buckle objects to our heads to learn the secrets of our stress. One possible avenue for more targeted stress detection is fungus-based computing materials, a new type of computing that fuses mechanical electronics with biology. 

Andrew Adamatzky is professor of unconventional computing at the University of the West of England. He runs a ‘wetware’ lab that investigates everything from sensors using single-cell biological organisms such as slime moulds, to electronic circuits orchestrated by swarms of soldier crabs. 

Mycelium, the vegetative part of fungus, communicates with trees through underground ‘Mycorrhizal networks’ and possibly exhibits spatial recognition, learning, and short-term memory. At the cutting edge of this mushroom-based research are theories that this all constitutes a kind of collective, fungal mind

In lab experiments, Adamatzky and his team exposed oyster mushrooms to hydrocortisone – an analogue to the stress hormone cortisol – and the mycelium responded electrochemically. Accordingly, a recent paper by Adamatzky proposes that mycelium could one day be integrated in biosensing wearables that detect human stress levels. Picture this: mycelial material weaved into wristbands, headbands and bracelets, or even melded with everyday objects such as furniture or keyboards.

This new material might even help robots to ‘feel’, using something called ‘fungal skin’, a thick layer of pure mycelium grown in liquid culture. “Fungal skin responds to tactile and optical stimulation with distinctive patterns of electrical activity,” says Adamatzky.

For humans, tapping into this mushroom intelligence could lead to other kinds of fungus-based sensors, which Adamatzky says could “monitor various health parameters, such as body temperature, hydration levels, or even detect pollutants in the environment”. 

Although these computing systems are in their infancy, this fungal future could have broad applications, especially in life sciences. Because these would be biological systems, the smart objects like biodegradable sensors could even be compostable. “Once they’ve served their purpose, they can naturally decompose, reducing electronic waste,” Adamatzky says.

Stress engine optimisation

Stress itself, though, may not be the enemy. Some stress is good for us, according to recent research by the INSEAD Business School. The problem is when there’s so much stress that it overwhelms us. 

In INSEAD’s study, explains postdoctoral research fellow Felix Jan Nitsch, the team showed respondents disturbing pictures, blasted them with unpleasant noise on headphones, and introduced increasing time pressures to the unlucky participants. 

“We found moderate levels of stress were beneficial for performance,” Jan Nitsch says. “The people who had a tiny bit of stress and moderate time pressure were performing better in the simulation, even over participants who did not feel any stress at all.”

However, this effect was reversed when researchers ramped up time pressures or other stressors, with performance subsequently dipping. “A tiny bit of stress can be activating and motivating but at some point it flips over and hurts performance,” Jan Nitsch adds.

Technology can be a double-edged sword when it comes to tackling stress. Take remote work, made possible by conference calling software and the like. While some employees have reported improved work/life balance, other studies have shown that 75% of people working from home report burnout, exacerbated by loneliness, longer hours and the blurring of boundaries. 

In the workplace, nominally de-stressing technologies have yielded impressive results for some organisations, but have also proved controversial among critics.

When their products are used as part of a broader package that includes one-to-one sessions with occupational therapists, biometric tech companies have claimed to see major improvements in perceived stress levels of users. 

Regulators and trade unionists, though, have expressed concern that some biometrics-based technologies are open to abuse. 

For example, the European Union banned ‘emotional sensing technology’, designed to track sentiment and feeling among employees via facial recognition, in its recent AI Act. In the UK, the Trades Union Congress is calling for a ban on the technology too. While businesses may claim this technology improves wellness, in practice it looks a lot like surveillance. 

And it might not be very good at tracking wellness anyway. One 2019 study found it is simply “not possible to confidently infer happiness from a smile, anger from a scowl, or sadness from a frown”. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employees don’t like to have their every movement observed. A recent Raconteur survey discovered most staff would quit if they were subject to employee monitoring tech. “While health surveillance may, at first glance, seem like a positive move, it can have a negative effect on workers’ mental health and morale,” said TUC assistant general secretary, Kate Bell. 

The distress-eustress scale

Stress breeds resentment and leads to conflict, which can create productivity bottlenecks, slowing projects and affecting the wider business, warns Agur Jõgi, CTO at SaaS company Pipedrive. 

“The great tech leaders of today are guardians of their teams,” Jõgi says. Technology should be used from this perspective, to help to identify potential issues. Leaders should pay close attention to workloads, and strive to stick to clear processes and systems for daily work life. 

“Technology can catalyse this process, keeping track of goals and job satisfaction at regular intervals, to help foster a collaborative atmosphere,” says Jõgi. 

Few technologies are inherently good or bad. In a 2019 Information Systems Journal paper about ‘technostress’ – a phrase coined in the 1980s about technology overload – researchers differentiated between ‘techno distress’, where technology overwhelms people, and ‘techno eustress’, where technology is perceived to create a challenge or an opportunity. 

Those researchers recommended an approach to designing IT systems that enhanced ‘eustress’ and mitigated distress. This could include presenting technologies as challenges to be mastered. Something that will then lead to positive outcomes – a bit like how learning a language or any other new skill won’t be completely stress-free, but will be enriching nonetheless. 

Just like learning a new skill, organisations should present technology as a positive stressor that enables employees to take risks or approach work more creatively.

Rather than viewing any one technology as a stress-busting silver bullet, businesses might have better luck running broader exploratory programmes designed to identify the big distressing issues. 

Innovation might help us identify spikes in physiological stress in wondrous and intriguing new ways – but the goal for leaders should be identifying the root causes of distress and then working to eliminate those.