Wearable technology for health and wellbeing

Could wearable technology be here to stay when it comes to health and wellbeing?

It’s hard to miss the wearable tech buzz – and that doesn’t mean the sound of it playing up. Hi-tech analysts Juniper Research predict a massive rise in global retail revenue from smart wearable devices, from around $5 billion (£3.17 billion) per annum today to $53.2 billion (£33.72 billion) by 2019.

Only time will tell if such forecasts prove accurate. But from an HR standpoint, what’s interesting is the emergence of wearable tech in the corporate environment. In its report Wearable Wireless Devices in Enterprise Wellness Programs, ABI Research predicts that by 2018 at least 13 million wearable devices will be integrated into wellness programmes. It may still be early days, but there seems to be momentum behind health and activity tracking devices coming into the workplace at the behest of employers.

Bringing wearable tech into organisations as part of wellbeing initiatives raises some interesting questions. For instance, how best to introduce and promote them to employees? What advantages do they offer the employer? And crucially, what should and should not be done with the data?

Collecting data via devices such as fitness trackers and collating it in a way that is meaningful is potentially very useful when it comes to creating or refining wellbeing strategies. Observing data collected over time will highlight any significant changes – for example, whether there is a general improvement in the health of the workforce – and may therefore help in demonstrating return on investment.

Quite how ROI is calculated will of course depend on the objectives of each employer’s wellness programme and the metrics for success put in place at the outset. Yet in the same way that a marketing department uses digital tracking technology to assess the effectiveness of online advertising campaigns, monitoring employee health data can provide real insight into the success, or otherwise, of wellness campaigns.

Given that the cost of wearable tech has come down dramatically, the comparatively small investment required seems fairly negligible when considered in the context of capturing data that can be analysed to validate or improve wellbeing programmes. Depending on the approach taken, it may even mean that devices can be introduced as part of a wellness drive at zero cost to the employer. Increasingly insurers and employee benefits companies are looking to bundle these products as part of their offer.

A case in point is Havensrock, a new “wellness-enabled” group income protection solution distributed and administered by Punter Southall Health & Protection Consulting (PSHPC). The rationale is to bring together employee wellness and traditional income protection. Each member of the scheme receives their own Fitbug Orb wearable movement and sleep tracker. As typically only a few staff ever need to use their income protection policy this aspect remains largely unappreciated. But focusing on the health angle of providing wearable devices means the employee benefit is likely to be more widely appreciated.

PSHPC managing director John Dean says that it’s important to accept that not all employees will want to use wearable technology, even when it is handed to them free of charge.

In Dean’s experience, around a third of employees at an organisation will have no interest in wearables. A further third will be “pretty engaged” for three or four months, and a final third will be “mad keen” – loving the stats generated and comparing them with colleagues.

However, argues Dean, even for the two-thirds who are not as zealous there is a halo effect. The fact that co-workers are having “conversations in the workplace about the algorithms that come out of these things” leads them to consider their own behaviour. As a result, they may decide to take the lift rather than the stairs. Or watch their waistline by buying healthier food.

“I can come back to a company a year after it has started its wellness programme and tell them how many people participated with their Fitbugs, what their activity levels were when they started and what they were three months later,” says Dean.

“We can see there has been a positive impact. We can look at what sleep patterns are like – whether they were bad in the first place and whether they have improved – what BMI levels were in terms of the average of the company and whether that has improved; the same with resting heart rate. I can build all of that into one report. This information gives you facts, so you can then develop wellness programmes that are effective in your organisation.”

But it’s critical to consider how all of this will be perceived by employees.

“Most of us have apps that collect data on our healthy or not so healthy lifestyles,” says Martin Rayson, divisional director of HR and OD at London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. “Sharing it with employers might be another matter. It would be very helpful to us in designing wellbeing programmes that target particular groups or specific health issues, getting away from a blanket approach and thereby focusing limited resources. Staff though will be concerned about being personally identified and employers using the information to form opinions that might impact their jobs.”

“There are interesting dichotomies,” says Chris Bailey, head of corporate consulting for employee health and benefits at Mercer. “To the Facebook generation everything is put online without a second thought. And when people sign up to an app they are agreeing to release their data to that app provider without thinking about it. But suddenly you put an employer in there and there’s mistrust in case the employer does something inappropriate or looks to somehow manage you [differently].”

However, he says the employers he has spoken to haven’t been looking to do that. “What they are hoping to do is to find out the risk factors in a workforce,” he explains. “Do they have a need for access to healthy eating options, or need to look at their HR policies to enable people to cycle in? It’s looking at the data in aggregate and seeing if the workforce requires help and support rather than trying to manage them via the back door.”

Any misgivings employees have can be allayed by making it clear that data generated from fitness tracking devices will only be used at an aggregated level. Individuals remain anonymous. And of course in the unlikely event of an employer doing otherwise – for example, by attempting to identify someone less fit than the norm – it would fall foul of the Equality Act.

Some disquiet may stem from the way other forms of wearable technology have been used in the workplace. Hitachi’s Business Microscope enables companies to fit their staff with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags that track their movements at work and even monitor sound waves to identify how stressed they are when they speak. There have been fears that technology of this kind can be used to spy on individual employees.

“How well it is received by staff will probably entirely depend on the way it is used,” says Advanced Performance Institute chief executive Bernard Marr, an expert in data and analytics in business. “If it is used as a disciplinary tool focused on the behaviour of individuals, it is sure to lead to resentment. But when utilised as a way to gain an overview of the company, it will probably generate fewer complaints – and more useful insights.”

Group HR director at Computacenter Barry Hoffman points out, however, that employers will need to strike a delicate balance between anonymising data and personalisation. Opt too heavily for the former and the impact of the scheme could be limited, he warns.

“Aggregated and anonymised data is highly likely to lead the well-intentioned employer even further down the ‘one size fits all’ road of banal initiatives that cannot adequately address the individual’s needs,” he explains.

“Data privacy and protection laws make it even more difficult to squeeze real benefit from an anonymised data set – so giving staff the tools and information to make their own decisions seems to me to be the best route to a sustainably healthier workforce.”

The best way to approach a wearable device wellbeing initiative will, then, vary between organisations. But what does seem certain is that as tech-savvy Generation Y increasingly comes to the fore in the workplace – at the same time as older employees are generally working for longer, and need to stay fit to do so – the conditions seem right to fuel the rise of wearable technology for wellness.

New solutions are emerging fast. For example, Microsoft launched its health tracker wristband in the UK in April 2015, with Nuffield Health as a health partner.

Plenty more lies just around the corner. Maria Bourke, managing director of health and wellbeing programme experts Let’s Get Healthy, says her research shows it won’t be long before the following is commonplace: telemedicine-enabled clinical e-visits; wearables continuously monitoring a broad range of physiology, from posture to brain activation; and even contact lenses that measure glucose levels.

Now that really is looking to the future.