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Pros and cons of using fitness trackers for employee wellness

James A. Martin | March 25, 2014
In February, during one of New England's harshest winters in memory, some employees at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, began deliberately parking further away from their offices.

In February, during one of New England's harshest winters in memory, some employees at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, began deliberately parking further away from their offices.

The private liberal arts college employees started walking more, working out more, and even dancing more. And within two weeks, a few of the most active employees had lost between 4 percent and 5 percent of their body weight, according to Bates College Wellness Program Director Mike Milliken.

What's happening at Bates College is no isolated case. Across the United States, many SMBs, enterprises, educational institutions and other organizations are adding high-tech gadgetry to their employee wellness programs. Fitness trackers, mobile apps and Web-based dashboards let workers count calories and steps, monitor sleep patterns, compete against colleagues and earn prizes.

While employers and employees alike praise these 21st-century corporate wellness programs, some say they raise privacy concerns, and the return on investment can be difficult to quantify.

Fitbit: The New BYOD

Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone UP and similar fitness trackers have exploded in popularity in the last year or so. And they're just getting started. In 2014, 8 million "smart" activity-tracking wristbands are expected to ship, according to research firm Canalys. The company predicts that number will reach 23 million units by 2015 and more than 45 million by 2017.

By 2018, more than 13 million wearable activity-tracking devices will be integrated into employee wellness programs, based on estimates from ABI Research. That's compared to fewer than 200,000 wearable devices used along with corporate wellness plans last year, according to principal analyst Jonathan Collins, as quoted by Mobihealth News.

Employee wellness programs are the norm today. Nearly 80 percent of organizations with more than 1,000 employees and 44 percent of firms with between 50 and 999 employees provide them, according to a 2012 survey by Automatic Data Processing.

With the increased awareness of health risks, the low costs of many wearable trackers, the desire to be more active and healthier, and a growing interest in the "quantified self," it's no wonder many workers are using gadgets to track their physical activities at home and at work.

Officially incorporating such devices into a company's wellness program — in which Fitbit and its kind have become a new type of BYOD — seems a no-brainer, especially as employers grapple with rising healthcare premiums. In fact, 35 percent of organizations say employee wellness programs are a "very effective strategy for controlling costs," according to a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust survey.

Benefits: Camaraderie and Cost Savings

Bates College

Bates College launched its employee fitness program in mid-February. The college partnered with ShapeUp, a social-media platform for employee wellness, and Fitbit, which offers activity trackers to organizations at a group discount to encourage employee exercise.

 

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