ASU researchers awarded grant for advancing workplace wellness

The team will use design, AI and sensor technology to improve the overall functionality of workplace wellness

September 9, 2020

With workplace wellness programs on the rise, an Arizona State University team of interdisciplinary researchers are asking big questions about how to improve the overall functionality, impact, engagement and economic cost of workplace wellness.

The team was recently awarded a one-year planning grant from the National Science Foundation for $150,000 to develop a prototype of the "Future Workstation." The grant was led by Pavan Turaga, interim director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. The team includes faculty from the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, The Design School and the College of Health Solutions. Young business professionals talking at standing desk Photo courtesy: LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash Download Full Image

Most businesses tend to have wellness programs in place, but they are lacking in certain areas. For example, there’s often a gap between the economic status of employees and the availability of workplace wellness tools.

“Corporate wellness outcomes rely on health practices that participants are expected to engage in even outside the corporate environment, such as enrolling in gym usage and outdoor physical activity programs etc.,” Turaga said. “Since access to such facilities is already tied to income levels in the broader society, the effect of income on the efficacy of corporate wellness is then easy to correlate.”

Turaga and the team are devising ways of increasing the accessibility to all members of the workforce. One of the ways the team plans to bridge the gap is by shifting some of the cost burdens away from the employees by moving these wellness practices directly into the workplace itself. 

“We seek to move corporate wellness practices to include interventions that are implemented directly at the site of work, in participants’ offices, their desks, their workstations,” Turaga said. “While people may choose to go to specific therapists outside their workplace, thus raising questions of access, we cannot think of a better place to intervene than in the site of work itself. By focusing on interventions that can be deployed on site, we reduce the reliance on external access to facilities that limit accessibility for lower-income employees. As we progress, we seek to include other factors, including mental health practices as well.”

Workplace wellness is not only directly related to accessibility but also engagement. Since participation and engagement are a large part of successful workplace wellness programs, another major point for the project is to incorporate technologies that will allow for more in-depth interactions and wellness readings. The plan is to leverage “off-the-shelf” and inexpensive technologies with new artificial intelligence and sensor technologies to improve the dynamics of workplace wellness.

“We need to be considerate of many issues, including cost, privacy, accuracy and latency in interventions,” Turaga said. “This means the types of instrumentation we use may be off-the-shelf, inexpensive low-grade devices, like simple pressure sensors embedded into a chair and cellphone-based assessment of posture. Our approach will leverage state-of-the-art machine learning methods that will be trained to convert low-grade, noisy and maybe even incomplete data from inexpensive sensors into information that can shed light on movement and health-related metrics. We also want to study how the job of the workplace wellness coach itself changes when they have access to such new sensors and AI-based tools.” 

Biofeedback is key in creating engaging and accurate data, art-based biofeedback in particular. By utilizing art-based biofeedback through these inexpensive sensors and incorporating artificial intelligence, these once low-grade sensors can be more than basic means of reading activity. 

“Biofeedback in our context refers to techniques that can be used to amplify and augment the sense of balance, posture and related features, so that a participant is made more aware of their habitual tendencies and inefficiencies,” Turaga said. “We seek to use a combination of auditory, haptic and visual biofeedback in our work. 

“One of our focus topics will be to look at the simple activities that can be embedded into daily routines, like from sitting to standing, and making a participant aware of how the movement is. We do this action without any attention drawn to the process of movement, since it is second nature to many of us. We rarely pay attention to issues like the symmetry of the left and right sides of the body, for instance. There isn’t even an easy way to draw attention to symmetry short of standing in front of a mirror.”

“Imagine being able to computationally extract a symmetry signal from a device such as the [Xbox] Kinect, and converting it to sound,” Turaga explained. “So as you stand up, you can hear the qualities of symmetry. It is not useful, nor engaging, to have simple sounds that are repetitive and monotonous. We work with real-time sound artists who can map features of movement to higher level musical structures like phrase lengths, harmonic rhythm and tempo changes. We feel such ‘artful’ biofeedback is critical in a site like an office space, both for reasons of aesthetics, and for long-term joyful engagement.” 

The idea of creating “artful” biofeedback will allow participants to become more engaged with their surroundings and aware of their physical movements. By using continuous sensing in wearable technologies, significant improvements can be made to personalize wellness protocols based on the individual's needs. The involvement of artificial intelligence and machine learning methods will also help create better recommendations and exercises for each participant and make wellness programs more efficient.

In addition to building healthier workplaces, the team is looking into ways that wellness can reach between corporate walls. As COVID-19 continues to limit people’s ability to work from the office, people have been transforming their homes into offices. Turaga said that the pandemic has brought to light more questions about how to positively impact health and mental well-being.  

With COVID-19, homes have become offices, but many of the concerns we were looking to address still hold. Time spent sedentary is still a significant concern, probably more so now with all meetings occurring via Zoom technology. General access to external facilities to engage in health-related practices is even riskier now,” Turaga said. “Thus, investigating new solutions for the future of workplace wellness is even more important than what we had prepared for. Considerations of mental health have been brought to fore, which we wish to include as part of our planning process as we go forward.”

Creating innovative, interactive and engaging wellness programs that are available and impactful is what drives this team to leverage art, design, AI and sensor technology to better the workplace, whether through physical or mental health.

Full research team: 

Assegid Kidane, electronics, School of Arts, Media, and Engineering, ASU

Dosun Shin, industrial design, The Design School, ASU

Todd Ingalls, sound design, School of Arts, Media, and Engineering, ASU

Grisha Coleman, movement studies, School of Arts, Media, and Engineering, ASU

Ellen Green, health economics, College of Health Solutions, ASU

Matt Buman, health behavior change, College of Health Solutions, ASU

Pavan Turaga, machine learning, School of Arts, Media, and Engineering; School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, ASU

Megan Patzem

Multimedia specialist, School of Arts, Media and Engineering


ASU researcher is a finalist for Religion News Association Award

Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict postdoctoral scholar Heather Mellquist Lehto is up for a religion reporting excellence honor

September 9, 2020

Heather Mellquist Lehto, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, earned national recognition for a three-part series documenting a range of perspectives, experiences and commitments among an increasingly diverse and rapidly growing segment of evangelical Christians. 

Mellquist Lehto and co-reporter Matthew Bell were selected as finalists for the Religion News Association Awards for Religion Reporting Excellence. Their series on evangelical Christianity aired on Public Radio International’s "The World," an hourlong news program that reaches 3 million listeners on more than 300 public radio stations. Download Full Image

With evangelicals taking center stage during the 2020 Republican National Convention, Mellquist Lehto discussed the relevance of this series.

“There's an assumption — in media portrayals or broader public portrayals — that evangelicalism is tacitly white evangelicalism, ignoring the fact that a quarter of evangelicals in America are people of color who align very differently, socially and politically,” Mellquist Lehto said. “And so I really liked having the opportunity to present these voices — and not just present them as voices that are exceptional to the mainstream — in order to communicate that our national conversations about evangelicalism are often not reflective of what evangelicalism really looks like.”

Overall the series features evangelicals across the country who present aspects of evangelicalism in the United States that are rarely a part of the public narrative about evangelical communities as a voting bloc.

The first segment, “The Evangelical Church is Becoming More Diverse,” highlights two pastors at a large Latino-led megachurch in Orlando, Florida. The second, “The Changing Face of Evangelical Christianity,” presents a story of a radically generous church in San Francisco without a church building or paid clergy. The third, “U.S. Evangelicals Are Not a Monolith,” features a married couple from Los Angeles — a Christian rapper and a Latina scholar — who are engaging in difficult conversations with their fellow Christians.

Mellquist Lehto sees this series as part of her larger scholarly projects that “complicate certain narratives about ‘Christian America’ and about Christianity in America,” she said. “At the very least, what I hoped to accomplish was to make sure that we have a more accurate understanding of what these communities really look like before we do broader political theorizing about evangelical support for Trump or people of color walking away from the term ‘evangelicalism’ because of the way it has become so associated with conservative politics,” Mellquist Lehto explained.

Mellquist Lehto is a researcher with Beyond Secularization: A New Approach to the Study of Religion, Science and Technology in Public Life, an interdisciplinary project funded by Templeton Religion Trust. The project takes as an object of social inquiry the interlacing of science, technology and religion in public life in order to reassess — and reimagine — dominant ideas of progress that historically have recognized science and technology as forces that drive people away from religion.

Mellquist Lehto explores the coordination of technological and religious innovation in some of the world’s first and largest multisite churches — single churches that meet at multiple locations, often through the use of audio, projection, and even hologram technologies. Nearly all megachurches in the world have adopted this franchise-like form in the last decade, but this fairly new organizational practice originated in South Korea in the 1970s.

Mellquist Lehto spent two years doing multisited ethnographic research in Seoul, South Korea, and Los Angeles. Her current work explores Christian efforts to create and maintain what she calls “holy infrastructures” through one’s body, actions and the technologies of one’s practice.

“Multisited churches are these translocal communities that cut across the state, political, and cultural boundaries that often define research on religion,” Mellquist Lehto said.

“How might our thinking about evangelical Christianity and about multisited churches be reframed? How does participating in transnational churches affect how people think about geopolitics, economics and what makes a religious community — either in Korea or in their ‘satellite’ locations in Los Angeles or here in Phoenix? These kinds of questions continue to animate and remain at the center of my work, inspiring me to explore new methods and new forms of storytelling.”

“I always appreciated people who are doing more audiovisual things, but I was a little intimidated by it. Working with Matthew and working with sound in this particular way, I suddenly realized how much more useful my recordings could be.

“If instead of writing down what somebody said, if I could play you a clip of their voice saying these things, or if I could play a clip of the ambient sound in one of these churches as opposed to using just my words to describe it, that would be a different form of engagement. Because you connect to the story in a different way. For me, this project and this recognition has created a sort of pivot toward being more intentional about that.”

Story by Jennifer Clifton