Studies show that wearable fitness technology may benefit the workplace, but only if employers know what to do with the health data it provides, says Shaun Subel, Strategy Director, VitalityHealth.

How many steps have you walked today? What was your heart-rate on the treadmill at the gym this morning? How many times did you wake up in the night? How many calories have you consumed? What was your mood when you woke up? Chances are, most of us will be wearing a handy bit of kit that can answer these questions for us. There is a proliferation of devices, from smartphone apps and heart-rate monitors to step-counters and GPS devices, all of which allow us to track data about our everyday lives and behaviours, with the aim of improving our health and wellbeing.

Employers are well aware of the potential of the ‘quantified self’ trend to improve both the health of their workforce and the productivity of their business. Analysing data from 30,000 Vitality members over a period of a year we have seen that absence rates reduced by 33% – 49% for employees who were not tracking their physical activity initially, but subsequently began. The degree of reduction depended on the intensity of activity undertaken1. Our work measuring sleep quality also shows a significant relationship between health and performance at work, with the 28% of people who sleep less than 7 hours a day losing 4.7 days of productive time compared to people who get enough sleep2.

Wearable technology can provide a valuable tool for employers seeking to monitor and refine their wellness initiatives, as well as segment and understand their workforce, and employees would appear to agree. The ‘Wearables at Work’ survey from the Workforce Institute at Kronos found that 73% of adults saw the workplace benefit of wearable devices. Efficiency, work/life balance and company-paid devices were the top-three reasons given for using wearable technology for business-related purposes at their place of work3. Yet there is a reluctance from individuals to share data with their employer as the same survey found privacy was listed as a key concern among workers.

Using health data effectively

While employees may be anxious about how the company will use the information it collects, employers have a different dilemma: how to put this wealth of personal health data to good use. Most HR departments, especially in SMEs, will struggle to aggregate data from more than one device, and they may not have the expertise to interpret the results. Without expert analysis, the next step – implementing an effective workplace wellness programme – can be a hit-or-miss affair.

At Vitality, we believe the most effective solution to this challenge is for a business to work with an independent third party that can aggregate complex data from multiple devices in order to identify risk factors and devise strategies that improve workplace wellness. That third party should also ensure anonymity for employees, thus reducing reluctance to engage with wearable devices at work, and provide feedback to wearers about the meaning of their data. This is exactly what we do at Vitality, but we take this strategy even further by providing incentives to encourage ongoing use of devices and sustained healthy living, and a comprehensive range of health insurance options tailored to small business.

Making wearable tech work for business

Employers often use the tracking ability of wearable technology in challenges, those big, inclusive initiatives that aim to get as many employees as possible engaged with their health and fitness. These might include a challenge to walk 10,000 steps a day for the whole of January, or to swim the equivalent of the Channel, their progress measured with a Garmin Swim tracker. Competitions like these can help people make healthy lifestyle changes, but sustaining that impetus is another matter. We’ve found that wearable technology typically only increases activity for up to three months4. However, incentives can sustain longer-term use, which brings greater benefits not only for people who are new to exercise but also for regular gym-goers. For example, Vitality members using wearable devices are more active than non-members who use the same technology. They’re also twice as likely to still be engaged with their devices after a year4. We believe this is down to our Active Rewards programme, which gives members benefits such as Starbucks drinks, cinema tickets and iTunes vouchers if they do a certain amount of activity each week or calendar month.

So what does this mean for companies thinking of introducing wearable technology into their workplaces? For a start, it’s about how to communicate the benefits to their employees. The next consideration is about safeguarding employees’ data and explaining how it will be used, thus earning trust and engagement. An independent third party may help them to do this, while also aggregating data and providing tailored healthcare solutions. The final step is to provide rewards and incentives to keep those devices clipped to people’s arms and wrists, tracking steps and measuring heart-rates. Because healthy employees don’t just take less time off sick, they’re three times more productive than employees in poor health5. And that’s a clear benefit for every business.

How Vitality can help

  • In addition to providing award-winning health insurance, VitalityHealth aggregates and analyses data from wearable devices, then provides strategies for effective workplace interventions.
  • We provide 50% off wearable technology to our members, including Garmin, Polar and Fitbug devices and a range of rewards to keep people motivated. Terms and conditions apply.
  • Wearable technology typically increases activity for up to three months only. This engagement can be sustained when linked to rewards, like the range of rewards that Vitality offers for weekly and monthly activity.

1. Vitality Member Data
2. Britain’s Healthiest Company, 2014
3. ‘Wearables at Work’ survey, The Workforce Institute, Kronos, October 2014;
4. Taken from Vitality Insights Copy Brief Issue 3 Wearable Devices
5. ‘Healthy Work Challenges and Opportunities to 2030’, 2009 report.

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