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Wearables Week

Is The Quantified Employee A Healthier Employee?

Wearable fitness trackers are seen as a way for companies to ensure employees are keeping active, but are they fit for everyone?

[Photo: Flickr user Denis Kortunov]

At Biosyntrx, a Colorado Spring-based nutritional supplement company, every employee comes to work daily armed with their laptop, smartphone, and their Fitbit.

CEO Ellen Troyer purchased Fitbits for all six employees and 12 consultants in June and says they’ve helped nearly everyone on her team to shed pounds and be more active. Troyer herself has dropped 10 pounds. "We track each other every day," says Troyer, who hired a programmer to allow everyone’s Fitbit data to appear on the Biosyntrx website. Troyer has even had clients contact her when she’s been on the road and ask if she was ill because her step count had dropped.

"I think it’s one of the biggest health motivators," she says of the device. Once employees began tracking steps, a little friendly competition was inspired, even making the trek up two flights of stairs to Troyer’s office a prize to be won. "When I ask somebody to bring me a file, instead of moaning about coming up two flights of stairs, they’re all fighting over who’s going to go up the stairs to add more steps to their day," laughs Troyer.

Troyer is one of many CEOs who have issued wearable fitness tracking devices to employees, providing a means for employees to take charge of their individual health and track their own fitness levels, and allowing managers to keep tabs on the health of the company as a whole. According to ABI Research, more than 13 million wearable fitness tracking devices are expected to be incorporated into employee wellness programs within the next five years.

Is The Quantified Employee A Healthier Employee?

Incorporating fitness trackers such as Fitbits, Jawbone Up bands, and Nike FuelBands into employee wellness programs is now considered the vogue solution to create a healthier workforce. The idea is that by ramping up physical activity, productivity will increase, absenteeism numbers will fall, morale will rise and a little healthy competition will improve morale.

But while there’s little data to support claims that wearable fitness trackers can make good on these lofty promises, there are other issues at play with introducing these wearable devices into the workplace.

A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Is Faulty

Jeff Margolis, CEO of Welltok, who works with many workplace health insurance providers to optimize the health of their workforce, says the one-size-fits-all fitness trackers are largely ineffective in workplaces as they don’t target the specific needs of all individuals.

Increasing one’s step count may be effective for a portion of the population as a fitness target, but for those with back pain, arthritis, or knee issues, taking more steps could cause more problems than it solves. "Until wearables can be tied into more personalized health goals, I don’t think we’re really going to see the greatest potential level of effectiveness," says Margolis.

Involuntary Programs Can Be In Violation Of Labor Laws

Tiffani McDonough, a labor and employment attorney at Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel LLP in Philadelphia says companies that tie fitness trackers into employee wellness programs and offer incentives, such as lower insurance premiums to those who participate, could land themselves in hot water.

She points to a recent lawsuit filed by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) against Orion Energy after an employee was terminated when she refused to participate in the company’s wellness program as an example. "The company said it was a voluntary program, but if the employee didn’t participate, she had to pay a $50 penalty plus her entire health insurance premium. If she had participated in the program, the company would have covered that premium completely," explains McDonough. She advises companies looking to incorporate fitness trackers into their employee wellness programs to ensure participation is 100% voluntary.

Another big consideration, according to McDonough, is compliance with the Americans with Disability Act. "You want to make sure you’re making reasonable accommodations in your wellness program for individual disabilities," she says. A program that rewards taking extra steps, for example, has to provide an alternative way for employees in wheelchairs to earn the same rewards.

In-House Versus Third-Party Administration

McDonough also advises companies who are collecting personal data on employee activity to hire a third-party administrator rather than the company’s own HR department. By filtering data through a third-party administrator, McDonough says employees are more likely to feel comfortable participating since employers will receive the aggregate data rather than identifying personal information. The results will come in the form of "40% of the workforce has high blood pressure," rather than pointing the finger at certain individuals who have a health concern.

McDonough says receiving data in the aggregate fashion can better help a company to target health programs. "If the majority of the workforce has high cholesterol, the company may decide to do more nutrition-focused efforts such as providing better snacks in the vending machine," says McDonough. Similarly, a transportation company who uses wearable devices to track the sleep patterns of its drivers may find a large percentage are working on only a few hours of shut-eye and may want to re-examine shift policies.

Wearable wellness trackers can offer some real benefits, and are in high demand by many employees who enjoy flashing the latest health fad on their wrists, but while they may be trendy, it’s important to remember these devices do come with some real risk and they may not be for everybody.