Are wearables and corporate wellness a new frontier for HR?

While classic heart monitor technology, best known for its use by fitness enthusiasts and athletes, is not being replaced by the newest wearables, its applications are significantly expanded and utilised beyond the sports field, cycling dirt track and jogging trail.

Wearables, such as the Fit-bit, Apple Watch and related technologies enable users to integrate fitness and lifestyle goals with their everyday lives, obtain feedback on progress and advice on how to progress towards a healthier lifestyle. Its reliance on gaming techniques and integration with social support platforms provide added incentive to stay focused, improve and contribute individual results for the benefits of analysis, and feedback to users in the form of trends, challenges, advice and support.

From a corporate wellness perspective, it was not a major leap to find ways to integrate these technologies and their utilisation into their internal programmes. In this regard, HERO's 2015 Wearables in Wellness Survey found that 46% of employers offer some type of fitness tracker as part of their wellness programme. Of those, half or more indicate that they offer the devices to increase the users' physical activity (94%) and healthy habits (62%), boost employee engagement (77%), and add fun and excitement to wellness initiatives (58%). But it does not end with fitness only. Recently, Apple announced a medical research platform in the form of Research kit. Wearables are increasingly moving into the monitoring of critical health indicators, such as blood pressure, heart rates, movement and stress.

While issues related to privacy and user trust are still to be explored further, a recent PwC study of South African workers show that there is an increasing acceptance of these technologies in the workplace for the benefits it holds. In this regard, the study shows that the respondents are open to sharing the following information under certain conditions:

• Bibliographical (marital status etc.) - more than 75% of respondents;
• Average blood pressure - 63 % of respondents;
• Heart rate - 63 % of respondents; and
• Physical activity - 64 % of respondents.

Against this background, it is clear that wearables, linked to big data and analytics, are set to grow and further change the HR landscape. The adoption of these technologies by using already existing schemes lowers the barriers to adoption, and opens windows for improved product targeting, people risk management and improved productivity. Consider the following scenarios:

• Improved movement levels are incentivised by lowering health insurance premiums but adjusted in real time (the basic idea is not new but the use of real time data is);
• When key health markers of an employee (like blood pressure) are consistently outside acceptable parameters automatic triggers can be activated to provide educational material, propose personal life style changes and even more directive medical interventions;
• Corporate health practitioners can monitor specific markers in functional areas to track stress levels, general health etc, and initiate appropriate interventions; and
•  While most wearables already allow for participation on social media forums where health and fitness goals are shared and advice exchanged, these can be “corporatised”. Such platforms have the potential to create common focus and improve the fitness of teams (with productivity benefits), divisions and functions, and also have a very positive influence on employee engagement.

The future of wearables in the corporate wellness space is bright. It will however change the role of HR and health practitioners from professional service providers who have an administrative burden towards professionals who are also data analysts. The future will pose challenges but the benefits will be real.

References

Are wearables a good fit for your wellness program? | HealthFitness. (2017). Retrieved on February 26, 2017, from http://healthfitness.com/blog/are-wearables-a-good-fit-for-your-wellness-program/.
Predictions for 2016: Wearables and Wellness Go Together .... (2017). Retrieved on February 26, 2017, from https://www.salesforce.com/blog/2016/01/2016-predictions-wearables-wellness.html.
Matt Hamblen. (2017). Wearables and company wellness programs go hand. Retrieved on February 26, 2017, from http://www.computerworld.com/article/2937333/wearables-and-company-wellness-programs-go-hand-in-hand.
PwC, Wearables in the workplace January 2016

Philip de Kock is an HRIS project and organisational change manager, with experience in the mining, construction and petrochemical industries.

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