Fitness trackers are a popular way to encourage health at work. Are they worth it?
Work perks are expanding past paid time off and dog-friendly workspaces. Companies are offering health and wellness perks to their employees, many in the form of company-provided fitness trackers that monitor weight loss, daily activity, sleep and more.
As good as prompting workers to pay attention to their health might sound, though, providing wearable devices might spark concerns around privacy and preferential treatment.
According to a study by the JAMA Network, it may yield little to no actual benefits to employees. The study examined the experience of 33,000 workers at BJ's Wholesale Club over the course of a year and a half. It found that, while workers had higher levels of physical activity or exercise and paid closer attention to their weight, there were no significant changes in things like their blood pressure or sugar levels, and no reduction in the company's healthcare costs, which is often a major motivation in implementing health and fitness programs.
A health and wellness program like company-provided activity trackers often has a long list of pros and cons. Business News Daily spoke to health professionals and business experts to see what benefits and negative effects wearable fitness trackers could bring to your business.
Pros of fitness trackers in the workforce
"Employee fitness incentive programs can result in reduced absenteeism, greater worker productivity and lower employee turnover," said Alfred Poor, Ph.D., editor of Health Tech Insider. "All of these factors can result in real bottom-line financial savings for employers."
In addition to increasing employee engagement, implementing an activity tracker program can create a culture of gamification in the workplace, which has been proven to increase morale, focus and drive for a given task. Gamification makes the mundane fun and provides social support, which increases a participant's chances of maintaining their progress.
"Many organizations find that offering wearable fitness trackers that have shareable data encourages teams to work together to reach not only corporate goals but also [personal] fitness goals," said Jared Weitz, CEO and founder of United Capital Source. "This drives collaboration and camaraderie amongst the team."
Healthy, happy workers are productive workers, which means good things for your business's bottom line, despite what the JAMA study found at BJ's Wholesale Club.
"You can't just buy a bunch of fitness bands, hand them out, and then expect to get gains," said Poor. "[The JAMA study] result runs counter to many, many other studies, and it shows that you need to have a solid plan that is managed well. If not, you run the risk of wasting money and alienating workers."
For example, a study published in the Harvard Business Review showed a 6-to-1 return on investment for companies that implemented a wellness program.
As Poor said, a well-planned program can mean lower healthcare costs for your company as your employees gain better health and wellness. The Affordable Care Act offers a provision under which employers can offer wellness incentives, such as gift cards or rate discounts to their employees (paid for by insurers) if they do fitness tracking.
To make sure your program gets off on the right foot, start with a thorough assessment about your employees, their health risks and what they want out of a wellness program, and design the program around those responses. Then develop a clear set of goals and objectives detailing exactly how you will achieve those goals. [Learn more about setting achievable goals.]
Finally, outline a budget, what your incentives will be, and how you will communicate the wellness plan to your employees.
Cons of fitness trackers for workers
The biggest downside that comes to everyone's mind with employer-provided fitness trackers is invasion of privacy. Many people feel that their health and wellness is their business alone and should not be shared with their employer, whether this is just on principle or out of concern for health-based discrimination.
Employers having access to employees' biometric data is a gray area of legality, according to Corporate Wellness Magazine. Labor lawyers have expressed concern that employers may use fitness device data to justify promotions or pay raises, or even as reason to terminate an employee. Having access to employees' health data is a violation of both the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).
A typical fitness tracker wearer, whether it was purchased personally or given by an employer, will not run aground of HIPAA violations. Wearable makers like Fitbit and Apple have devoted significant efforts to making sure their devices comply with HIPAA. It is only when a healthcare provider asks for data collected by the device that HIPAA would come into play.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also prohibits discrimination based on an employee's health status. An employer having access to an employee's weight, heart rate or other metrics could open that employee up to potential discrimination. Because part of the reason that many companies implement wellness programs is to ultimately cut down on healthcare costs, legal professionals worry that this may lead to employers – consciously or unconsciously – using health as an element in their decision-making.
Another main concern is that data collected by wearable devices is not held in databases with the same security or regulations as data collected by doctors or hospitals, leaving it vulnerable to hacking.
The best way to deal with this, said Poor, is to give your employees as much information and choice as possible.
"When I work with companies on developing [wellness] programs, I encourage them to give employees the option to opt in to the program and not force them to participate," he said. "This gives them the choice to share their data or not."
The key is to make the program entirely voluntary and open to the whole company. This way, you avoid targeting any particular demographic and lowering morale by taking away choice.
Other ways to promote health in your business
There are many ways to promote health and wellness in your company that can either augment or replace wearable devices.
"Consider looking for discounted gym memberships that you can offer your employees," said Weitz. "Look at your office as an opportunity – install standing desks, conduct ergonomic assessments, and stock break rooms with healthy foods and beverages."
You can also foster bonding and engagement by planning active outings with your employees, such as playing casual sports games, participating in community walks and runs, or scheduling a visit from a dietitian or nutritionist.
Consider sending out a survey to see what your employees want or would enjoy. This way, you can ensure that you meet their needs and avoid alienating part of your workforce.