Best Practices for Using Wearable Devices in Wellness Programs

A step tracker, on its own, will not change health behaviors over the long term

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS May 17, 2017
Best Practices for Using Wearable Devices in Wellness Programs

Wearable devices, such as activity trackers, have shown promise as tools to increase participation in employee wellness programs. At least 1 in 6 U.S. consumers use wearables in the form of either a smartwatch or a fitness band. But getting the most out of these devices requires more than just asking employees to use them.

A new report from the nonprofit Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), based in Waconia, Minn., presents findings on how employers are incorporating wearables into their workplace wellness programs. The Wearables in Wellness Case Study Report identifies best practices for using wearables to promote health and well-being, such as:

  • Give employees the devices or offer a subsidy rather than requiring workers to buy them on their own.
  • Set goals and encourage employees to meet them and earn incentives.
  • Involve employees' spouses and domestic partners to increase participation and create a support system outside of the workplace.
  • Use a pilot program to identify ways to improve the effort before expanding it to the entire workforce.
  • Modify the program from time to time to keep employees engaged.

"We see a lot of promise in the use of wearables as a component of a comprehensive workplace wellness program," said Jessica Grossmeier, vice president of research for HERO. However, "Early research supports that a device, on its own, will not change health behaviors over the long term."

Instead, "forward-thinking employers who have been early adopters of well-being best practices are implementing wearables in creative and effective ways," said Jack Bastable, national practice leader for employee health and productivity at consultancy CBIZ. "They're realizing success, in part, because they are supporting their device strategy with a sound communication strategy, making it financially feasible and encouraging long-term use."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Wellness Programs]

3 Case Studies

HERO's report looks at three organizations that have effectively integrated wearables into their wellness programs using a results-oriented approach:

BP, a global energy firm, started incorporating wearables in 2013. Today, more than 75 percent of eligible participants enroll in the company's annual Million Step Challenge, and 79 percent reach their goal.

BP has modified the program over the years to add goals beyond one million steps, and smaller goals for less active participants who are unable to achieve the million-step goal. As a result, the program has been consistently popular with participants.

Emory University in Atlanta launched its wearables program, Healthy Emory, in 2014 with a pilot program at five sites. Based on those results, Emory made modifications and offered the program to all Emory University and Emory Healthcare employees the following year. Healthy Emory's Move More Challenge was designed to be fun for participants and included team-based elements to encourage social support and inspire friendly competition.

When the program expanded enterprisewide in 2015, 6,300 Emory employees participated in the challenge, and 82 percent remained active for all eight weeks. In a post-program survey, 67 percent said it was the first time they had used a wearable device, and 82 percent reported using the device every day of the challenge.

Ochsner Health System, a New Orleans-based regional hospital network, began using wearables in 2008 as part of a program that offered employees a device free of charge and asked them to reach a target number of steps to earn an incentive. Analysis over the years has shown that Ochsner employees who use wearables have lower medical costs than employees who do not take part.

Bogus Miles

Some companies have found that providing generous financial incentives based on the number of steps recorded by activity trackers fostered cheating, according to a panel discussion held May 9 at the 2017 Total Rewards Conference in Washington, D.C., presented by WorldatWork, a total rewards association.

One benefits director, who asked to remain anonymous, shared that during an employee focus group on workplace benefits, employees "were telling us that people were gaming the wellness" incentives. For instance, "they would tie their trackers to ceiling fans to improve their stats, or attach them to their dogs."

After hearing these revelations, "we backed off in terms of the rewards," he said. "We provide a wellness app that reminds people to do good things every day."

Related SHRM Articles:

Community Competitions Spread Wellness Success, SHRM Online Benefits, May 2016

How Fitness Trackers Can Boost Employee Wellness, SHRM Online Technology, October 2015 

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