Last reviewed 6 March 2018

As wearable technologies continue to expand, some companies are using these devices to promote corporate wellness programmes and healthier lifestyles across their workforces. Dave Howell reports.

Promoting health and wellbeing in the workplace has been a core focus for facilities managers (FMs) for several years. It’s a simple equation: a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. A recent trend, which moves how fitness and wellbeing is promoted and, importantly, tracked using wearable technologies should be carefully considered by all FMs.

Corporate wellness programmes formalise how these initiatives are organised and use wearable fitness tracking devices to monitor participants but sometimes the level of tracking and monitoring that is possible can be a double-edged sword that FMs need to tread carefully along.

The care that needs to be taken also revolves around how the non-users of this technology are perceived by their colleagues and managers. For some, tracking their vital signs and the amount of exercise they do is attractive. Whereas for others, this can be seen as demonising them as unfit and therefore, unproductive.

As the “quantified self” movement that promotes the use of tracking devices to understand health and wellbeing have become increasingly popular, some commentators have pointed to research from Lancaster University and others that has shown using a fitness tracker has little impact on the user’s overall health and wellbeing. Indeed, the developers of these devices have little empirical evidence to support their claims of improved health.

For FMs looking closely at corporate wellness programmes, care should be taken to think through the issues of privacy and security when using wearable technologies. How data collected by these devices is used has been highlighted as unclear from a legal point of view. And with the coming expansion of how personal data can be collected and used under the GDPR regulations, FMs need to ensure they comply with all regulations when implementing these systems.

No one is denying that being able to better monitor health has revolutionised healthcare in general. It’s when this data is on an individual level and linked to productivity in a workplace that the issues of privacy come to light. This hasn’t stopped some businesses moving forward with their programmes. BP, for instance, offers discounted health plans for any employee that can walk one million steps in a year, which is verified by a wearable device, while SAP encourages fitness by offering discounted Fitbit trackers.

Says Hilary Stephenson, Managing Director of digital user experience agency Sigma: “Ethically, it’s really important that employees have options and granular control over what data they share, with whom and how it is retained.”

Stephenson continued: “We did this as an exercise when the first Fitbit wristband launched and saw mixed results across the team. Some achieved significant and sustained weight loss, but others were left feeling demotivated by colleagues who were walking a lot further. It had the opposite impact in that sense and we saw almost unhealthy levels of competition in the team on occasion. It was very important we explained it was a gift, purely optional and people were in control of their own use.”

Promoting fitness

Mike Blake, Wellbeing Lead for Willis Towers Watson Health and Benefits was asked whether, in his experience, FMs are attracted to corporate wellness programmes.

“According to Sodexo, a majority (61%) of facilities managers surveyed said that employee wellbeing would have a high impact on their organisation in the coming years and claimed facilities management is helping to enhance (22%) employees’ health and wellbeing.

“It is the role of a FM to create a safe, suitable, comfortable — and ultimately “well” — workplace. Traditionally, this has meant meeting the physical needs of a building’s occupants and ensuring they have the optimum working environment. However, improving quality of life has become a top priority for FMs in recent years, meaning the role has evolved to incorporate the management of psychological factors too.

“The demand is there and, as FMs are generally attuned to the needs of the workforce they are more likely to be tasked with or make a business case for the introduction of wellbeing programmes.”

Corporate wellness programmes can rely on wearable technologies. Is this leading to more competitiveness, which could actually erode general fitness and wellness in a business’s employees?

“One of the biggest challenges for employers when it comes to wellbeing programmes is a lack of engagement. Technology can help overcome such disengagement as it breaks down the barriers to access, increasing employees’ interest in their wellbeing and giving them ownership of their health and fitness. Adding the element of competition through ‘gamification’ can help assist in the quest for better health standards and drive motivation.

“In order to ensure this does not negatively affect the general health and wellbeing of employees, businesses should not pressure employees to participate, and should instead look to positively reinforce the benefits of wearable technology and create a dedicated portal to deliver health-related information and promote health challenges.

“Personalisation is a powerful tactic for boosting engagement. By making it easy for employees to participate in programmes, helping them understand that programmes have been designed with them in mind, and creating individual or team health challenges, such as walks, stair climbs and weight-reduction activities, wellbeing will soon become ingrained in the organisational culture.”

With the ability to track our health, what are the privacy and security implications FMs need to be aware of?

“A significant barrier to effective benefits technology engagement is employees not wanting their employer having access to their personal, health-related information. In fact, nearly one-third of employees worldwide say they don't trust their employer getting involved in their health and wellbeing, according to Willis Towers Watson report: Human-Centric Health’s study.

“This is particularly prevalent and problematic when dealing with highly-sensitive issues, such as alcohol misuse, obesity, and mental health.

“Employers need to build employees’ trust in areas pertaining to health, especially the use of employees' personal data, so that workers will begin to see their employer as a go-to resource for improving their health and wellbeing.

“For some employees, improving their health and wellbeing may always be strictly a personal pursuit. In these cases, employers can play a pivotal role by creating a workplace environment that supports these employees as they tackle health issues on their own. Employees should be reassured that their health-related data will remain private and secure, and employers should take the time to explain the steps taken to secure it.

“FMs may recognise that a need exists but until a robust plan is in place to address this, progress will not be made. Employers who understand their own employee populations, health risks, and their underlying causes are likely to have greater success forging a health and productivity strategy than employers that take a scattershot approach by offering individual, disconnected programmes.

“So, where an employer is considering introducing health and wellbeing programmes, it is important for FMs to be involved at an early stage because they will be relevant to planning as well as the implementation.”

Is Big Brother watching?

Corporate wellness programmes seem to offer FMs a trackable and measurable system to monitor the health of their workforces. Fitness trackers alone however, won’t deliver the improvements in overall wellness and fitness. Often, it’s just the worried well that enthusiastically take up these schemes, leaving everyone else to either ignore them, or become forced to use them, which can then be self-defeating.

Tim Hoctor, Vice President of Professional Services at Elsevier concluded: “It’s important that people understand wearable tech is good at collecting simple, isolated data points — such as your heartrate during exercise, or how you slept last night — but it cannot provide a clinical analysis of that data. Wearable tech users must be educated on the limitations of their devices and understand that the knowledge of physicians and scientists will still be the foundation of good healthcare.”

Monitoring health of course has benefits: anyone with a chronic condition understands this. But technology and the analysis and tracking that goes along with it isn’t a replacement for promoting a culture of wealth and wellbeing in a workplace.