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Wellness is now wearable.
If you look closely, you’ll see them everywhere. From smartwatches to
wristbands to clip-on gadgets, fitness trackers are monitoring people’s
steps, caloric intake and other health metrics while doubling as fashion
statements. And now, the wearable-device trend has moved into the
corporate wellness market.
Spurred by wellness incentives that are part of the Affordable Care Act,
more companies are offering employees activity trackers from providers
such as Fitbit, Jawbone and FitLinxx as part of their wellness programs.
Others are piloting devices that measure blood glucose, heart health or
even brain activity.
According to a 2013 study by New York-based ABI Research,
over the next five years 13 million wearable devices with wireless
connectivity will be integrated into corporate wellness plans.
“What the latest wearable devices provide to wellness programs is an
easy data feedback loop that wasn’t available before,” says Jonathan
Collins, a principal analyst with ABI Research. “The easier these
devices become to use, and the more seamless the data tracking, the more
employees and wellness administrators will want to use them.”
An Integrated Approach
Some organizations tie use of wearable devices into online wellness
platforms to encourage a more holistic approach to health. At the State
of Colorado, one challenge was meeting the diverse wellness needs of a
large government workforce, says Kathy Nesbitt, executive director of
the state’s department of personnel and administration.
“We have a large geographic area to cover, so we wanted a unified
platform that was easy for people to access and use, regardless of their
health plan, and would contain all the wellness resources to meet
personalized needs,” she says. Participation is voluntary.
The state tapped a wellness platform called CafeWell from vendor Welltok
of Denver. Employees use the site, which is delivered in a
platform-as-a-service model, to upload step results and access
personalized health itineraries and educational resources on smoking
cessation, diabetes care, dietary issues and stress reduction.
An employee using a pedometer might create a goal of averaging 60,000
steps per week as part of a weight management effort, then upload the
results to the platform, where he or she can watch related videos, read
articles and receive support from a health coach.
How does Nesbitt measure the payoff? “Health care costs have gone down
for us in some aspects,” she says. “We’re also seeing less utilization
of benefits with certain vendors.”
One of the biggest hurdles to widespread use of next-generation
pedometers can be their cost. The devices retail for about $100 each but
come much cheaper when purchased in bulk. Still, for some companies,
it’s a significant expenditure. “The good news is that, like any
technology, the cost will come down with time,” says Alan Kohll, founder
and CEO of Total Wellness, a wellness services provider in Omaha, Neb.
Employers that offer fitness tracking devices should ensure that all
aspects of wellness programs they design comply with the Health
Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Under HIPAA’s nondiscrimination provision, for example, employers must
offer alternatives to employees who aren’t able to use activity
trackers. “If it’s considered reasonably difficult or medically
unadvisable for someone to use an activity tracker, HIPAA states that
you either have to waive that requirement and offer them the same reward
for participation regardless, or give them some other way of
participating,” says Alexandra Devendra, an associate in the labor and
employment group at the San Francisco office of law firm Nixon Peabody.
As for the ADA, the act prohibits medical exams except under narrow
circumstances—so the question would be whether the use of such trackers
could constitute a medical exam. However, the U.S. Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission has stated that disability-related inquiries and
medical examinations are permitted as part of voluntary wellness
Employers also need to ensure that they maintain the confidentiality of
any personal health information generated by wearable devices, Devendra
Some pioneering organizations are going beyond step, heart and sleep
trackers to test one of the biggest underlying causes of poor health in
the workplace: chronic stress.
in Canton, Mass., Chris Palmer, program lead in the organization’s
wearable fitness electronics group, recently conducted a pilot test of
Muse, a brain-sensing headband from vendor Interaxon that claims to
sense brain activity much like a heart rate monitor detects heart rate.
Muse users engage in three- to 12-minute training sessions to track how
active or calm their minds are, with EEG sensors detecting activity and
sending real-time feedback to smartphones or tablets. The goal is to
help people learn to settle their overactive minds to improve focus and
enhance resilience in times of stress.
Palmer recently tested Muse with 10 people over a two-week span, asking
each individual to use the device at least once a day. He is currently
“It’s grounded in strong science around signals processing,” he says,
“and we’re looking at it in terms of its ability to improve cognitive
awareness, resilience and relaxation.”
Rewards and Incentives
One of the obstacles to success is getting employees to use the devices
long term. To keep people engaged and enthused, many organizations turn
to challenges, rewards and incentives.
At Houston Methodist hospital,
employees can use their Fitbit devices to accumulate credits to apply
toward prize drawings. Averaging 5,000 steps per day each month earns
one credit, with each additional 2,500 steps earning an additional
credit up to the maximum of eight—which makes employees eligible for a
$10,000 annual prize, says Janay Andrade, director of benefits at the
To date, 6,500 of the hospital’s 17,000 employees have purchased fitness
tracking devices, which come in three versions and can be clipped to
the user’s body or worn on the wrist. The hospital subsidizes a portion
of employees’ costs, and buying in bulk generates a discount. The
devices not only measure steps taken but also distance traveled and
calories burned. Newer models feature sensors that gauge elevation, and
some also track sleep quality using a dashboard that indicates the
number of times users wake up and how long they sleep.
In Colorado, state employees receive discounts toward their health care
premiums through certain activities. For instance, they receive a $10
monthly discount for logging on to use the wellness platform and another
$10 discount for completing a health risk assessment. Qualifying
employees can receive a maximum yearly premium reduction of $250.
Creating a strong wellness culture starts with senior leaders walking
their fitness talk. At Houston Methodist, a “CEO step challenge” awards
additional credits to any employee who can out-step the top leader of
each local unit in monthly events.
“It’s proven harder than it seems,” Andrade says about the employee
effort to subdue their competition in the contest. “Our senior leaders
are doing a great job of demonstrating wellness leadership.”
Experts believe employers are only scratching the surface on use of
wearable technology in wellness programs. “I think more and more
wellness tools will eventually be integrated into tomorrow’s
smartwatches,” says Kohll of Total Wellness.
Collins of ABI Research agrees, noting that “If you can wear it on your
wrist and it has other functionality in the workplace, such as access
control to computers or buildings, I think that drives adoption.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.
SHRM video: Reshma Patel of the American Diabetes Association discusses technology for promoting fitness
HR Magazine article: Get Moving
SHRM resource: Wellness Resource Page
Report: Promoting Employee Well-being (SHRM Foundation)
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