Test, track and trace in the workplace

We’ve had plenty of mantras during coronavirus. First it was ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.’ Then England moved to ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives.’ The next evolution, as lockdown began to ease, was to ‘test, track and trace.’

This referred to the NHS’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, which the government said could help to keep check on transmission of coronavirus by tracking each and every case.

More than 30 countries are building tracing apps, and with England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam warning COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon, testing and contact tracing may become part of our daily lives. This is particularly apt within the workplace where most of us will inevitably come into contact with a lot of people.

The concept of health tracking in the workplace is nothing new, and not just for illnesses. Some wellness programmes now ask employees to volunteer information on how much exercise they take, and whether they smoke or drink, while others use blood tests to provide health checkups.

At a time where an employee’s mental and physical health is being placed under immense pressure, there is an obvious logic behind introducing a health tracking system at work.

Research from consultancy Korn Ferry found 50% of employees were fearful of going back into the workplace due to health concerns, and given the last few months has been filled with messages to keep our distance from not just strangers but our loved ones too, it’s easy to see why there would be apprehension among workers about heading back to the ‘real world.’

Yet as lockdown eases and more flights begin to leave the runway, questions remain over the future of the business trip, travelling between offices and global mobility.

Traditionally, travel was seen as a benefit of the job role for some, yet now it means employers are putting their employees in potentially hazardous, and avoidable, situations at a time where we do not yet have a vaccine for this deadly virus. This will undoubtedly cause anxiety for HR professionals desperate to prioritise employee welfare, so is health tracking inevitable in UK workplaces?

What does health tracking look like?

There are a variety of tests available for employees, from simple tick box questionnaires to specifically developed antibody tests, such as MEDsan’s, which takes a pinprick of blood to let patients know within 10 minutes whether they have been infected with COVID-19. Plenty of businesses have bought into the vision. MEDsan has received over 30 million orders and counting from 20 countries across the globe for its COVID-19 rapid tests, including from European governments and university hospitals demonstrating an increased desire to track health stats.

The more self-explanatory questionnaire, such as Champion Health’s, asks employees to fill in information on four areas of wellbeing: mental health, lifestyle health, musculoskeletal health and energy levels. The assessments are designed by academics and GPs and each employee receives a personalised health report after completion. The employer also receives an anonymous company health report that outlines the rates of presenteeism within each department, meaning organisations can assess areas of risk and introduce new practices based on employee data.

Employees have the choice as to whether they want to complete the assessment, and the information is fully anonymised and stored with maximum security in Microsoft Azure Cloud services. Employees can also request to have their data deleted. Yet this may not alleviate employees from feeling pressured to participate.

Harry Bliss, co-founder and CEO of Champion Health, has witnessed a huge surge in requests since coronavirus. He says: “Our services have increased by more than 500% since lockdown started. Employer anxieties have definitely risen with working from home becoming the new normal, so we’ve altered the platform to reflect [this].”

He is passionate about employee health after losing a friend to suicide in 2018, the reason for setting up the firm. This post-coronavirus rise, he predicts, will create a boost for the health tracking sector.

He adds: “Health tracking is significantly on the increase and with more data pointing towards the strong correlation between employee wellbeing and productivity, organisations are required to understand the health of their workforce to underpin what interventions they select.”

And the new technology is being used across all sectors, says Bliss. “We are working with over 400 organisations across the UK,” he says. “There is no specific sector we’re working with, as health and wellbeing assessments are required with every workforce. The areas which have the greatest uptake are traditionally ‘white collar’ workforces.”

One of the firms currently using Champion Health’s system is education tools provider Twinkl. It started using the system before the pandemic took hold, but has been able to adapt its questions during lockdown.

Amy Wood, head of HR at Twinkl, says the assessments have helped the company to improve employee support. He says: “We have extended our wellbeing team to provide more communication, guidance and one-to-one support. Some of the questions we have asked our team have been directed at the impact of COVID-19 and we have acted on our findings where possible. An example would be the increase in flexible working.”

To alleviate any employee concerns regarding privacy of health data, Twinkl always makes the surveys optional unless it is information needed for health and safety reasons. Wood adds: “We always aim to be 100% transparent in letting the employees know why we would like to gather this data, what the data will be used for and who will be able to access it.”

Wood says before companies look at introducing any kind of tracking, a lot of work needs to be done to build trust within the organisation. “We have really focused on putting wellbeing at the heart of our strategy and over the last six months we have seen a positive shift as we are seeing more and more employees trusting us and sharing this information with us, which has given us great information to aid the future wellbeing strategy,” he adds.

Although not currently using temperature checks, given the company has switched from office working to remote, Wood says he would consider this in the future as lockdown eases and employees head back into the workplace. Yet he is confident that coronavirus will mean a change in employee expectations and attitudes.

He adds: “I think a positive that will come with regards to health tracking post-coronavirus is the impact this will hopefully have on conversations, policies, and practices regarding wellbeing; using the tracking data to support strategic decisions and increase the investment in employee wellbeing as many companies move to a more flexible working model.”

More on health tracking at work:

Twinkl has a second office in Australia and although travel between the two was already limited, Wood says trips will be even less common. He says: “We have seen how effective we can be through digital communication. I believe there will be less need to travel for business as digital literacy levels increase across the globe.

“The need to be in the office will be less profound. I believe that people will blend travel and work even further in the future. This will mean global mobility will still exist but potentially be more based on flexible working/location rather than essential business travel.”

Although Wood says using a confidential tool has been a positive experience for his employees, by enabling HR to give workers the support they need, not all workplaces have the same anonymity. Some specifically designed COVID-19 testing kits automatically notify the employer, Public Health England and the NHS symptoms tracker database.

Beacon Wellness was set up at the start of lockdown after founder Peter Mahoney watched workers at his construction site sent home. He says: “Short of a vaccine or cure, I knew the only way they and other workers around the UK, not just in construction but across the economy, could return to work safely would be through frequent mass testing.”

Workers take the test at home while being supervised by a medical profession over Zoom. Mahoney adds: “Our medical professionals are mainly drawn from those who are not working due to cancelled health procedures or who are self-isolating. It’s a safe and creative plan that will give peace of mind to employers and employees alike, while still using the skills of those medical professionals who want to keep helping during this emergency.”

He predicts the company will receive up to 100,000 tests per week with over 99.8% accuracy, yet scientists have raised question marks over how accurate the antibody tests are. In June, a group of researchers published a letter in the British Medical Journal arguing the performance of these tests had not been assessed against the usual standards.

Where are my rights?

Whether protecting against COVID-19 or trying to get a snapshot of their workplace, employers have a variety of tracking tools at their disposal. However, HR should be aware of the legal implications of monitoring employee data.

James Castro-Edwards, partner and head of data protection at law firm Wedlake Bell, says: “Naturally, some employees may be unwilling to give up this personal information, and employers will need to respect this. Employers must make sure that their deployment of health-tracking technology complies with data protection law. For instance, a data protection impact assessment may need to be carried out.

“Employers must also recognise that employees have a right to privacy in the workplace, which must be balanced with the employer’s interests and responsibilities.”

Information about employees’ health is one of the ‘special categories of personal data’ defined by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which means there are stricter rules on how employers collect and use the data.

Castro-Edwards adds: “GDPR stipulates that employers must only collect the minimum information about employees’ health necessary for the purpose for which it was collected – and it should not be used for other purposes.

“GDPR also requires that employers must establish one of a number of lawful grounds for processing, with the underlying presumption that they should not process health information without a valid and lawful reason for doing so.”

So, employees could give their consent for an employer to offer up more information, yet Castro-Edwards warns this could be problematic in an employee/employer relationship as valid consent must be freely given, and the employee must have a genuine option to say no.

“If an employer cannot establish a valid lawful basis, they must not process information about their employees’ health.”

We already know that individual data is, in some circles, used as a currency that businesses can profit from. But in the context of health tracking, it can mean employees feel listened to and valued. Positive experiences, such as the introduction of more wellbeing initiatives, can be a result of collecting health data.

Global mobility will undoubtedly be affected by the rapid switch to digital communication and an employee’s willingness to travel for hours when they could get the same meeting done from the comfort of their own home in their pyjamas.

Yet where travel is necessary, health tracking may well become the norm to alleviate both employee and employer concerns and keeping contact to a minimum. The privacy issue will undoubtedly be a source of discomfort for many, but, as we’ve already seen pan out, the alternative illness is usually much worse.

The above article appears in the July/August 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.