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Are wearable technologies simplifying employee wellbeing?

There’s no denying that technology has a vital part to play in ensuring the success of wellbeing strategies, especially in a world where face-to-face interaction is temporarily not an option.

We’ve rapidly shifted from being able to interact with our colleagues on a regular basis and have face-to-face meetings; to working and living in the same space, limited to communicating primarily via a computer screen.

Of course, it’s only natural then that many employers have turned to technology in the hope that they can combat feelings of isolation and loneliness, ticking the box of looking after their employees.

The issue is we’ve seen companies emerge out of nowhere during the pandemic bringing the latest wearable gadgets destined to solve all wellbeing problems in the workplace. In reality though, these ‘sticky plasters’ rarely work – they just cover up the issue.

I recently read about a new wearable that’s been implemented by a number of businesses. The wearable in question gives employees the option to rate their happiness using two buttons, one for yes, and one for no.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying the fact these companies have brought to market something which could be effective if used correctly and as part of a broader wellbeing strategy, and they are clearly very innovative when it comes to technology.

Unfortunately, my concern is that some of these ‘gadgets’ are taking the hugely complex emotion of happiness and oversimplifying it.


Is employee wellbeing really as simple as a yes or no answer?

Let’s get straight to the point: no, it isn’t. Think about your own happiness right now. If you were to a press a yes or no button, which would you press?

I know for me, my family are well, I live under a warm roof in a nice area with space to work and relax, and I get to spend more time with my partner. So, I could very easily press 'yes'.

However, I’m living in the middle of a pandemic, I can’t see my friends, family or colleagues, and I’m holed up in my house because of lockdown with the inability to go anywhere. And this has been the case for shy of a year now. So, I’m not happy, really.

Which option should I choose? Which of those bits are most important? Are we telling employees to only rate work and not their happiness overall? Wellbeing and happiness aren’t as black and white as that.

Just like our bodies, human emotions are extremely complex and fluctuate from day to day, hour to hour, dependent on the circumstances which present. I’ve felt lonely and isolated, and to be honest really down, on many occasions.

Are wearable wellbeing technologies a distraction from workplace conversational issues?

According to a study by REBA in 2017, the use of technology over the coming years is expected to rapidly grow, with employers predicted to include health and wellbeing apps, virtual GPs and wearable devices, as part of their wellbeing strategies.

The key words here are ‘part of their wellbeing strategies’. I’m a big fan of wearables generally, but the issue when it comes to employee wellbeing is that they only tell you so much. That’s why a proper understanding of wellbeing strategy and employee engagement is key before investing in these as a sole wellbeing tool.

Let’s break it down. Why do we need a wearable where we rate happiness when social queues could prompt this anyway? Are these wearables, although sound in principle, masking a poor culture where employees are not able to share concerns or challenges?

Employers certainly shouldn’t be relying on people rating their happiness through wearables when an honest discussion and open communication would lead to a better outcome. With many of us craving human interaction, we need to do our best to ensure that we grab any opportunity possible.

What’s more human, a wearable or a conversation?

Further reading

Could bots help to solve employee mental health problems?

Wearable technology for health and wellbeing

People vs technology: managing technological change

How will the data be from these wearables be used?

I’m worried that for many, it won’t, and that’s a wasted opportunity for the employer and a frustration for the employee. The benefit of wellbeing technologies is that they can provide a whole host of data, but it’s how you use it which makes the difference.

That’s why it’s important to develop a plan for using data before purchasing these gadgets. If you don’t, it could become rather an expensive mistake.

Imagine this, we know that 40% of our employees are unhappy, the data has shown this, but how does this data inform us of what to do next? Do we need to follow up with survey? If so, why didn’t we just do that in the first place?

Do we need to reach out to employees and find out specifically what’s causing the issue? Yes, probably, so why didn’t we leave our departments and have those conversations? Personally, I don’t know whether each wearable provides individual answers or population averages, but if the former, do we need to consider whether there are ethical considerations to consider here, too?


How can HR and employers use wearables alongside effective wellbeing strategies?

It may seem a little old hat, but wearables can provide a good opportunity to engage people in regular exercise – be that step challenges, community distance goals or trying to do something every day.

A group of friends and I challenged each other to do some form of exercise for at least 31 minutes per day every day for the 31 days of January. We did this so we feel we’re all kick starting the year in the right mindset and organise it for free using WhatsApp and Strava.

Something a little more innovative is whether we could we use these to incentivise active commuting then or increased activity levels as part of our wellbeing strategies?

Maybe we could financially reward walking or cycling into work like we back pay mileage on driving to meetings. Obviously, we can’t do this now but maybe we could lay the foundations now for when we can? It’s food for thought but might be the enabler for people to use the cycle to work scheme.


What kinds of conversations should HR be having with their employees?

Instead of relying on technology, I fully believe we should be encouraging open conversation between employees and employers. Wellbeing discussions don’t need to be difficult, but they need to be honest and authentic, and that’s why workplace culture is important.

Employees need to know that you care about what they have to say and demonstrating this through the environment you create is a great start.

If you’re struggling to identify how to begin having these conversations, I recommend starting with simple questions.

Once the conversation begins to flow, find out what working from home is really like for each employee, and explore ways that together you can make it easier.

Recently, a friend of mine took his office chair home to support his back, something which was a result of an honest conversation with his employer that I have absolutely no doubt will impact his productivity.

Remember, wellbeing means something different to everyone, so work with each employee to set some personalised wellbeing goals and explore how these could be achieved.

Then, asses what support is needed from the team/line manager and organisation to make it a reality – I can almost guarantee a wearable happiness tracker won’t be on this list.

Gary Butterfield is co-founder and executive director at Everyday Juice