Wearables in the Enterprise: Wellness Programs

487692979Here at LANDESK, HR recently rolled out a new wellness program for US employees where gym memberships are reimbursed if we maintain a certain level of activity tracked via a wearable and synced to a wellness service. After reading up on the program, my thought was whether this is the first real introduction of wearables in the enterprise.

The old wellness program simply required employees to opt-in to get a gym membership. I am an avid runner and triathlete and use my gym membership regularly. The reality is that most people rarely use their gym memberships. This is great for gyms and people like me where usage expenses don’t get impacted by most of the paying members. For businesses, this is one benefit that perhaps need not be provided. Enter the wearable.

This past year I’ve noticed more people using activity trackers and I observed a surge of colleagues who received activity trackers (Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbone) for Christmas. In the case of LANDESK, those who want to get that nice gym perk, we will actually have to move around a little. With rising health costs in the US, businesses are looking for ways to offset those costs and activity incentives are one way. In doing some research, I see that LANDESK is not alone with activity-based incentives. In the past year, companies such as BP and Autodesk implemented wellness programs where activity tracking was an element. So if these programs take off, what are the privacy, legal, ethical, financial, and IT implications?

Employers already know a lot of personal information about their employees. With activity trackers, they are getting involved with some very personal information. In the case of LANDESK’s program, they are only measuring an average number of steps and regular activity to remain eligible for the program. The reality is these trackers can track other metrics and questions will come up as to whether an employer is abusing information gathered, such as the amount of sleep an employee is getting when an employee performance issue arises. If employees are syncing information to corporate wellness services, employers need to strictly adhere to only accessing data that has been agreed upon for sharing.

I’m sure there are many lawyers who have vetted these programs. Employees don’t have to participate with optional programs and I expect this is where these programs will remain to avoid legal resistance. If simple programs such as activity thresholds for gym memberships are successful, I expect these programs to expand. Imagine if future wearables are able to measure blood alcohol or nicotine levels and employers exchange lower health premiums for tracking of behaviors that have cost implications.

This new wearable frontier in businesses is tricky. Is it fair for a business to track anything but employee’s output and work performance? You could argue yes, when they are providing benefits related to employee decisions and behavior. It’s a conversation that is likely to be debated for years.

Let’s get serious, it’s all about the bottom line with these programs. My previous job was the president of a small startup and I can tell you that insurance costs are brutal for US businesses. Employers are raising those costs, but at some point, they need to find new ways to manage them while still providing benefits to attract the best and brightest. The US government hasn’t done much to lower health costs so businesses will step in when they are on the hook.

These programs may force IT to step into wearables where they haven’t in the past. BYOD smartphones and tablets have forced IT organizations to figure out how to manage and secure those devices. With wellness programs, HR might be spearheading the program, but who will support the wearable that isn’t syncing to a phone or cloud service? IT will be asked to provide assistance. If these programs take off, I foresee a device purchase to involve IT asking vendors (such as Fitbit) about management and security capabilities. Vendors will need to add ways to provision and manage these devices so IT isn’t running around supporting an HR program when core business services need attention.

Final Thoughts
In my opinion, anything that can reduce my healthcare costs is a good thing. That said, I believe optional programs that are incentive-based with transparent data sharing policies, and strict data control are the keys to success. Employee success is first and foremost based on their work, but tying incentives to benefits makes sense when balancing cost and employee retention\attraction.

On a broader scale, I believe there is a conversation that needs to happen. Tracking employee wellness is a step, but technology alone doesn’t solve the problem. Part of the challenge is the epidemic of sedentary office work and the health hazards of sitting. As more people spend extensive amount of time at a desk behind a computer, the occasional walk and gym workout might not be enough to offset the impact of a sedentary work style. There are many ideas to remediate sedentary work (treadmill desks, standing desks, walking meetings, etc.), but will businesses be willing to change the way we work once they start learning more about what our work is doing to us? As for me, I think I might go get that treadmill desk I’ve been thinking about buying for the past year.