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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.

Though Appirio and VISTA Staffing Solutions both reported financial benefits, others say gains can be difficult to pinpoint, according to Megan Granat, benefits and wellness manager for Practice Fusion. However, Granat says Practice Fusion's Fitbit-based fitness program has indirect financial benefits. The program increased team building and job satisfaction, for example.

"Employees who enjoy their job and co-workers on such a deep level are less likely to seek employment elsewhere, which keeps our recruiting costs down, Granat says."

Joy Vance, senior executive assistant at Asynchrony, says it's too soon to tell if the company's high-tech wellness programs will result in financial benefits. Similarly, when asked if Garfield Group's employee fitness program has paid off financially, president and founder Larry Garfield said that "from a healthcare costs standpoint, not yet, but perhaps over time it will. From a team-bonding and data-awareness standpoint, though, it definitely has."

McCaffrey also says integrating a wellness program into a company's culture can be a "major undertaking."

"In order to succeed, wellness programs require more institutional support from top executives," McCaffrey says "This kind of top-down support has the ability to systematically shift employee perspective towards preventative care models. Ultimately, the shift is more likely to produce stronger employee adoption and engagement numbers. Executives need to drive this new culture change throughout the organization with words, actions and resources."

Some employees may hesitate, or even refuse, to share personal activity data due to privacy concerns. For example, a recent post on the Varonis blog mentions five privacy and data security issues related to wearable tech that users should keep in mind.

"Many fitness trackers' privacy policies are vague and ever-changing, with platitudes that begin with 'We respect your privacy' and end with 'We may share your information with third-parties,'" writes blogger Cindy Ng. (Varonis is a data-governance/management company.)

"Today, privacy risks are relatively low for employees because the primary data collected, such as activity, steps and calories, is nondescript," says McCaffrey.

For example, Fitbit and BodyMedia (which is owned by Jawbone) both offer employer wellness programs with privacy agreements meant to prevent employers from accessing information employees haven't agreed to share. Instead of seeing specific results from individual employees, company wellness plan administrators receive reports from Fitbit and BodyMedia in aggregate form.

"Technology is advancing rapidly, with the introduction of biometric wearables and integrative platforms," McCaffrey says. "To prepare for this change, wellness programs must re-evaluate the legal implications in regards to HIPPA. They must restructure incentive plans, simplify rollout procedures and prioritize employee engagement strategies."

As corporate healthcare costs continue to rise, observers say businesses will likely start to ask for more employee participation in wellness programs.


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