By Linda Panszczyk, J.D.
Wearable fitness trackers, those small measuring devices that are seemingly everywhere, are starting to play a greater role in wellness programs but, for many, they raise a number of questions as well. What are they? How widely are they really used and do employees stick with them once the novelty wears off? What role can wearables play in a wellness program? What should employers be looking at before adopting wearables and what dangers do they present? As a new, but ever-evolving fitness and wellness trend, the answers to these questions are likely to continue to change as well.
Wearables defined. Popular examples of a wearable tracking device include those offered by Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbone, and others. A simple wearable, whether worn on a wrist, carried in a pocket, or attached to an article of clothing, or, with some recent versions, wearables that are part of the clothing, can monitor steps taken. However, more advanced wearables can go well beyond merely measuring steps and can monitor heart rate and sleep activity, for example.
There are a number of reasons that employees and others are using fitness wearables. As employees try to take action to reach their health and fitness goals, wearables are easy to use and can help reinforce behavioral changes. These devices help employees to track the changes they are making in their health and let them monitor their progress. When tied to an online community, whether with friends and family or with co-workers, wearables can help foster a social community of like-minded people.
At this point, it is still unclear whether wearables will have a long lasting impact or whether they are just a passing fad. One thing is certain: these wearable devices can be exciting at first, but interest in these trackable devices may tend to wear off fairly quickly. According to a study from Endeavor Partners, for example, estimates that, a third of wearable users stop using their devices within six months. This fact makes it tougher to sustain positive behavioral changes.
Prevalence of wearables in the workplace. During the past three years, there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of fitness bands and activity trackers sold. According to one analyst, roughly one half of wearables fitness tracker sales in the U.S. are made to companies that pass the devices along to their employees, sometimes at no cost to the employee.
In the workplace, according to a survey from Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), nearly half of the employers it surveyed (46 percent) offered or sponsored some type of tracker device as part of a wellness program. These could range from more advanced trackers such as Fitbit devices (77 percent) to more simple devices such as pedometers (almost 24 percent). According to the HERO survey, a substantial majority of employers (83 percent) subsidized the cost of the trackers for employees, either fully (51 percent) or partly (12 percent) though others used alternative funding methods. According to the survey, most employers (91 percent) permitted employees to use a tracker device that they already owned.
For the first time, in its 2015 annual benefits survey, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) added a question about company-provided fitness bands/activity trackers. According to SHRM, in response to this first-time question, 13 percent employer respondents said that they provide wearables to their employees.
In a 2014 Towers Watson survey, three out of four employers (76 percent) were exploring the use of personalized digital technologies, including mobile health applications and fitness wearables, as well as social media to encourage greater activity among their employees.
Role of wearables in wellness programs. In an effort to reduce healthcare costs and employee absenteeism, employers are turning toward wellness programs to help improve employee health. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148), for instance, employers can offer incentives for healthy behaviors, either in the form of a carrot or a stick. Data generated by wearable tracker devices can be used by employers and others to help manage health and healthcare costs.
In a survey from ABI Research, by 2018, more than 13 million wearable devices with embedded wireless connectivity are expected to be integrated into wellness plans offered by businesses.
Wearable tracking devices can play a big role in employers’ wellness program plans, though an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that wearables are facilitators or tools of health behavior changes, rather than drivers of such change. Wearables alone, it appears, do not lead to long-term health behavior changes but they can play a part in helping to achieve these improvements in healthy behaviors.
Wearables can help motivate and engage employees to exercise more. When used along with online platforms, wearables can create a spirit of community, in the sense of “we’re all in this together” and offering employees the chance to support each other in achieving their health and fitness goals. Many wearables also allow users to sync up with a related app, thus allowing users to set their activity goals and share their achievements either via the app or through social media. Nonetheless, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) Health Research Institute (HRI) and Consumer Intelligence Series, just about a quarter of respondents indicated that they are willing to share exercise information or health information in general with friends and family through social media, with far fewer willing to share data on sleep patterns, weight, medication intake, or diet.
Others employers use wearable activity trackers, such as Fitbit devices, as an incentive for employees to participate in their wellness programs and may subsidize the cost of such devices, either in whole or in part.
Issues for employers to consider. Wearable fitness trackers are not cheap and employees may not necessarily be willing to pay full price for them. An employer that wants to include wearables in its wellness program should consider its budget and look at what level of wearables fit into that budget. Many employees may already own a wearable and so a determination as to how many employees already own a wearable device should be made, as well.
Where a wearable fitness tracker has a role in the company’s wellness program, employees will almost certainly have privacy concerns. According to the PwC survey, for example, 82 percent of respondents are worried about privacy when it comes to their use of employer-provided wearables.
An employer should address these privacy concerns up front, making it clear to show employees that their health and fitness data is secure and that fitness data is aggregated and anonymous. For example, employers could consider using third-party services to manage data.
While many companies offer fitness trackers to their employees in connection with their corporate wellness programs, some do so for their employees’ own personal use. However, employers that try to access or record data from their employees’ fitness trackers for employment-related matters can run afoul of federal privacy laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as under state privacy laws.
Beyond cost and privacy concerns, many employers might wonder whether employees will voluntarily use the wearables the company has provided for them through a wellness program and, further, whether wearables will help modify employee behavior in the long-run. The most obvious, yet least talked about problem with wearables, is that people simply are not that interested in them in the long-term, it would appear. A study from Endeavour Partners, found that, within six months, a third of U.S. consumers stop using the device. Within 24 months, over half of wearables users will have abandoned them. Thus, companies need to consider, realistically, whether employees will stay with the program and make long-term changes to their health and fitness.
Once an employer has made the decision to purchase wearables for its employees, a next logical question to address is how the company will deal with the mountains of data created by wearables. The huge amount of information generated by wearables could create a data overload for many companies. Keeping track of, and analyzing, the large amount of data can prove to be daunting. The employer needs to consider what factors are most important to the firm and what goals it hopes to achieve through its wellness program.
What’s ahead? In the coming years, the HERO survey suggests that more information is needed as to: (1) understanding the types of employees that are drawn to or opt out of programs that use wearable trackers; (2) addressing perceived barriers by some employers, such as on the value and outcomes of tracker use; (3) concerns that programs using trackers capture only those employees who are already engaged in regular exercise; and (4) uncertainty about the impact of using trackers and behavior change over time. As the capabilities of tracker devices continue to evolve, understanding the impact of these changes will become essential.
According to a white paper from Endeavor Partners, despite their popularity, wearables are still in their early days. The next decade or so will raise questions as to how to transform all the data acquired through wearables and turn this mountain of data into meaningful, intelligent insights, the white paper suggests.
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