What wearable fitness-tracking devices can do for your corporate wellness program and your bottom line

Friday, April 22, 2016

You’ve seen these devices in the media. You’ve noticed them on a wrist, an arm, or around the neck of a passerby. You may even own one.

According to a new study from the Consumer Electronics Association, wearable fitness-tracking devices are the fastest growing electronic product in U.S. households (11%, up from 6% in 2014).1

Highly portable, easy-to-use, and affordable, fitness trackers can follow a variety of health indicators in real time: calories burned, steps taken, heart rate measured, hours slept, and lots more. These data help you set clear health goals, support a proactive approach to health, and provide a daily, accurate reminder of how you’re doing.

Why companies are getting into fitness trackers

Not surprisingly, companies invested in the health of their employees are adding this new tool to their corporate wellness toolbox. In fact, according to ABI Research, 13 million fitness trackers will be integrated into corporate wellness programs between 2013 and 2018.2

While there’s widespread interest in fitness trackers, the market still has “many question marks about how— and if—to use them, and where they fit in,” observes Paul Kostoff, CEO of MediResource Inc., a Toronto firm that connects healthcare content, technology, and behaviour change. “It’s a little bit of a Wild West going on out there.”

Overcoming obstacles to physical wellness

Many workplaces face challenges in getting broad participation in their physical wellness programs. Shift work, remote employees, and multi-location operations often make on-site fitness programs impractical.

In addition to these logistics issues, “very often it really comes down to what an individual’s personal barriers are,” says Mira Jelic, Vice-President Product Development and Client Services at Novus Health, a Toronto-based firm that provides health navigation and wellness solutions to organizations. “Some will mention practical things like time, lack of child care; they might have physical pain or physical impediments. And yet others may not see the value in [physical fitness].”

As a result, the corporate fitness program benefits only a small, highly-motivated segment in the workplace.

Fitness trackers act as catalysts for participation

When fitness trackers are brought into the program, logistics issues are simplified. The fitness trackers’ portability means physical activity outside the gym can be easily monitored.

And the tech appeal of the device makes employees ask, “‘Do we get one of those as part of the program?’” says Kostoff. “There’s a tremendous amount of interest in using the devices and intrigue in trying one out. That leads to people participating in the broader health and wellness program, and that’s a good thing.”

Adding the fitness tracker to your wellness program

Kostoff and other experts agree that the fitness tracker must be part of an integrated wellness program that supports behaviour change. Broadly speaking, such a program would consist of assessing the baseline of employee performance, setting health goals for the employee, providing online or telephone support as the new exercise habit is forming, and continuing to track the employee’s performance.

Keeping health and wellness programs fresh

As with any tech device, Kostoff says, “creating a sustainable level of interest after people start using it” is a key challenge. Based on data gathered from clients that serve the majority of insured Canadian employees, Kostoff reports that after six months about 50% of participants stop using the fitness trackers. The first month shows the highest usage, then there’s a 5% to 10% drop-off each subsequent month.

To sustain interest in health and wellness programs over the long term, Kostoff recommends regularly changing the focus of the customized fitness program. So for a defined period, the focus might be on the fitness tracker, then it might shift to educational workshops, or a fitness challenge, and so on, until the focus comes back to the fitness tracker.

“Often incentives are used to promote a behaviour,” notes Jelic. Incentives can range from external rewards, like money, prizes, or redeemable wellness points in a corporate program, to more intrinsic rewards, like the potential for fun, improved quality of life, and higher energy levels. “Finding the right fit of which incentives,” says Jelic, “is about knowing your group, your audience, just as much as it is about what you choose.”

Financial incentives are important, observes LuAnn Heinen, Vice-President at National Business Group on Health, a U.S. non-profit representing large employers; but depending on them exclusively won’t always ensure long-term interest in fitness programs. Intrinsic motivators tend to be more sustainable.3

Collecting your wellness program data

With dozens and dozens of fitness trackers on the market, there’s a wide range of data that can be collected on employees. For example, some trackers can monitor heart rate to assess stress levels during the day. Some can track movement within a facility so the time spent at a desk, in meetings, and in other locations can be measured. Other trackers record voice usage to measure total participation in meetings.

Some employees will worry that the data collected may hurt their chances for a promotion or a raise, or trigger increases in their insurance premiums. So it’s essential that an employer demonstrate clearly that the data collected will be anonymous and secure. Maintaining a “firewall” between personnel records and the wearable technology is essential to a successful wellness program.

Improving social interaction and bonding

In offices and on the shop floor, fitness trackers become an ice-breaker as employees compare their numbers with peers and superiors. The increased interaction also stimulates friendly competition. Colleagues cheer each other on in their efforts to improve their health, and thus trackers reinforce team bonds.

Benefiting productivity

While the ROI directly attributable to fitness trackers is still to be defined, it’s undeniable that they stimulate interest in the broader corporate wellness program. According to data collected by Kostoff’s firm, companies that invest intelligently in corporate wellness stand to make significant savings in reduced absenteeism and presenteeism. For example, every year an employer can save about:

  • $1,800 per employee when their health status evolves from high-risk to medium-risk
  • $3,000 per employee when their health status changes from high-risk to low-risk

On the other hand, an employee who moves from a low-risk to a high-risk health status can cost their employer about $4,000 annually in absenteeism and presenteeism.

Improving employee retention

A 2014 Aon Hewitt study found that in companies with a healthier work environment, 59% of employees cite that environment as a reason to stay, and 75% say it makes them feel better about their employer.4

“If there’s a commitment to make health part of your corporate culture, and a commitment to follow through on it,” Kostoff says, “it can change your corporate culture. It’s one of the more visible ways to let employees know you care about them.”

REFERENCES

Brandview. Wearable fitness tracker market growing at a rapid rate. [online] May 13, 2015. [Cited February 12, 2016.]

ABI Research. Corporate wellness is a 13 million unit wearable wireless device opportunity. [online] September 25, 2013. [Cited February 12, 2016.]

Martin, James A. 14 ways to improve corporate wellness programs with wearables. [online] In CIO.com. October 5, 2015. [Cited February 12, 2016.]

Aon Hewitt. The Consumer Health Mindset. [PDF] 2014. [Cited February 12, 2016.]