Health and Safety

By Sarah B. Hood

How many steps have you taken so far today? If you’re among the fast-growing number of people who use a wearable fitness tracker, you probably have a pretty close idea.

The past decade has seen a minor revolution in the widespread popular adoption of wireless activity trackers under such brand names as Apple Watch, Fitbit, Jawbone, FuelBand, Gear Fit and SmartBand. Their allure rests partly in the ease with which they sync to mobile phones to allow for convenient goal tracking. A survey released by the professional services company Accenture in early 2016 found that the number of Americans who use wearables and mobile apps for managing their health has doubled in the past two years.

Some companies have been quick to see the potential advantages of harnessing the power of this technology to engage employees in taking better care of their health. It’s not just about weight loss and exercise; the new frontiers of employee wellbeing embrace mental and even financial health as well. But why should employers care?

“The simplest reason is that it’s generally been proven that employees who are doing the right things [in terms of] exercise and diet and managing their care proactively will be absent less, more efficient and productive at work, more engaged and more likely to stay when the organization is supporting them in their goals,” said HR technology consultant Steve Boese, president of H3HR Advisors. “When companies are invested in the health and wellness of people, a lot of good things accrue to the organization, quantitatively, in terms of absenteeism and health care costs, and qualitatively, in terms of goodwill and engagement.”

That investment and care can also change the dynamic of an organization.

“It creates lots of connections between staff. It starts to create a culture around caring and sharing,” said Mira Jelic, co-founder and vice president of Novus Health.

Wireless technology has already enabled many employers, large and small, to create company portals related to health and wellness that employees can access on their smartphones and tablets to connect to referral information, EAPs, benefits and so on. Now, they can go one step further.

Since wearable fitness devices have seen such widespread adoption, says Boese, companies are asking how they can fit into the workplace.

“Is there a more holistic programmatic way to adopt this?” he said. “It would be a good idea to support and integrate what people are doing in their private life. A few companies have emerged in the market to integrate these kinds of personal devices and activity trackers into a corporate program.”

By providing employees with tracking devices, subsidizing them or simply working with whatever employees have already acquired for themselves, companies can set up challenges and competitions, offer incentives for participation and, most important, measure successes.

“You can measure participation, trends in activity, fitness challenges, eating right challenges; with these wearable devices, these things are incredibly easy to track,” said Boese. These statistics can be matched against goals such as health care claims data, claims against certain types of disease or medical procedures and long-term tendencies in chronic repeat claims.

Implementing a program

Companies looking to implement a program involving new health and wellness technology should be mindful of where to begin the process.

“The first thing is to evaluate where an organization is in their journey around workplace wellness – are they new to this, or have they been doing programming for years?” said Jelic.

Next, she says, is setting goals.

“That’s a partnership; that’s understanding the needs from the employer side to the employee side and identifying which types of programs might be a good fit,” she said. “They should consult a wellness professional; very often their insurer will offer built-in programs as part of the benefit plan.”

Novus Health works with employers of all sizes.

“The larger employers seem to have more support and more HR professionals. While it’s exciting to talk about Fitbit and Jawbone and Apple Watch, there are still many organizations that will not be able to take advantage of them yet, but everyone should realize that these things are having an impact on the workplace,” said Jelic.

She names four main areas that technology can assist with. The first of these is “biometric and productivity feedback to help people reach their personal or other goals.” Next are educational information and access to professional advice and counselling.

“The kind of gains we’re going to see in the next 10 years will eclipse what we’ve seen in the past 10 years: social and professional connection in the workplace where employees and employees gather around competitions and cultural events that support health and wellbeing,” said Jelic. “Technology allows HR professionals to quickly poll the employees: would you rather have healthy snacks in the workroom for lunch-and-learn sessions? It has huge potential, and we’re already starting to see some of the benefits today with the early adopters.”

Choosing partners

Boese names Virgin Pulse as one example of a potential partner in wellness technology.

“They’ve moved past how many steps you take in a week to more holistic views of wellbeing,” he said. Last February, Virgin Pulse joined forces with ShapeUp and Global Corporate Challenge.

“We have members working around the globe in many types of work settings where they don’t have regular access to a computer; that’s why all the functionality will soon be available through a mobile application,” said Dr. Rajiv Kumar, president and chief medical officer at Virgin Pulse. “Members can then their smartphone and never have to log in through their desktop computer.”

There’s more to wellness than counting steps and calories, and new technologies are including more and more in their offerings.

“We take a whole person approach to wellbeing assessment, so at the very beginning, we ask questions about physical, mental and financial health and make recommendations on ways to improve. Then we ask users to do things in small steps,” said Limeade vice president of product, Justin Jed. Employees work towards different motivational goals, which could range from improving their sleep to engaging in volunteerism.

No matter which type of program a company chooses, it will require “commitment of the organization and their leadership to the goals of the program, and the willingness to stick it out,” said Boese. “You’ve got to be willing to build slowly, and you need a clear value proposition: how does the employee see the value in it for himself or herself? And you need regular check-ins to make sure things are going in the right direction.”

Above all, he said, “These things take time.”