Health+Benefits the June 2015 issue

Could Wearables Be the Answer?

More than half of employees using wearable devices stick with their wellness programs.
By Jessica Grossmeier, Jack Bastable Posted on June 1, 2015

As employers get more sophisticated in their efforts to improve employee health by offering wearable activity trackers to wellness program participants, they do so not to spy on employees but to make the process of getting healthy more fun.

While “wearables” have emerged to track many aspects of our health, including heart rate, blood pressure and sleep quality, the most popular use for wearables in wellness programs is to track physical activity.

They do so not to spy on employees but to make the process of getting healthy more fun.

What’s so appealing about wearables (aside from the “cool” factor inspired by using the latest and greatest technology)? They rely on gaming techniques and social support to keep individuals and groups moving toward a common goal. Businesses that successfully integrate fitness trackers into their wellness programs help their employees meet individual goals while moving the organization toward its corporate health goals.

According to technology consultancy Endeavour Partners, one in 10 Americans over the age of 18 owns an activity tracker. In addition, U.S. employers will integrate more than 13 million wearable health and fitness tracking devices into their employee wellness programs by 2018.

HERO (the Health Enhancement Research Organization) recently released findings from a study of how 188 companies are using wearables to engage in workplace wellness. According to the study, of the 46% of employers who said they offer fitness trackers as part of their wellness programs, 51% pay the total cost of the device and 53% extend this option to spouses and dependents. To receive a fitness tracker, the most common requirements for employees include signing up for a program or campaign, completing a health assessment survey or earning points as part of their overall program participation. Nearly 22% of companies said employees who want to receive the device simply have to register for one.

Skeptics of the wellness industry believe businesses have ulterior motives for offering activity trackers to their employees. But 94% of businesses said they offer them simply as a way to increase physical activity. In addition:

  • 77% want to increase employee engagement with their health
  • 74% want to add a “fun factor” to their wellness program
  • 62% want to see improvements in employee health
  • 51% want to see improvement in performance and productivity.

There is no single wellness strategy—whether it’s a financial incentive, a health risk assessment or a wearable device—that can stand on its own and accomplish lasting behavioral change. These popular strategies work best when they are part of a comprehensive wellness program that is supported by a healthy workplace culture—hence the use of fitness devices that include gaming and social support (think individual and team challenges) or that offer incentives for ongoing use. Incentives might include cash for participation, or they might be tied to achieving different levels of physical activity.

Just how long does the party last when it comes to wearables in the workplace? According to the HERO survey, 59% of businesses reported the majority of their employees were still using their devices more than 12 weeks after launch, and 54% reported the majority of their employees were still using their devices six months after the program began. To top it off, businesses report high employee satisfaction with their device experience—so much so that 95% of the employers say they will continue offering fitness trackers as part of their wellness programs.

It’s safe to say wearables are more than just fun and games. Despite the survey numbers, skeptics will continue to claim these devices simply become expensive paperweights after a few weeks. Yet wearable technology continues to evolve, so expect more savvy businesses and wellness providers to use this technology to get employees to the wellness party. And you can bet more research will be conducted to identify the connection between wearable devices and health outcomes. Wearable technology could become a staple in comprehensive workplace wellness programs of the future.

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