Keep it moving: Why wearable technology could improve your company’s bottom line

A healthy, happy workforce is more productive and less costly to maintain.

With more and more UAE companies now coming around to this way of thinking, engaging employees in a workplace wellness programme has become an increasingly popular tactic. In a recent study of employee benefit trends, 93% of UAE employers said that programmes designed to keep employees healthy are important.

The rising cost of health insurance, coupled with the growing incidence of chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, is driving employers to explore new ways of keeping their workforce healthy.

One solution that is gaining traction and delivering measurable improvements is the use of wearable technology.

According to a recent report by ABI Research, shipments of wearables to companies are expected to reach 154 million units by 2021. Wearable technology can be used to both monitor and prompt employee activity, thus helping to improve the overall health of the workforce. This, together with its ability to provide statistical evidence of healthy activity, could help to reduce those rising health care costs and hence those insurance premiums. 

According to a recent report by ABI Research, shipments of wearables to companies are expected to reach 154 million units by 2021.

Understanding wearable technology

So let’s look at some areas of wearable technology that are finding their way into people’s lives, and ultimately our workplaces. And what they could mean for your company.

1. Fitband trackers such as those produced by Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin and Misfit, are primarily designed to track how many steps you take in a day. Worn as a wristband, these devices contain a sensor that measures motion. The more sophisticated devices are able to monitor acceleration, frequency, duration, intensity, and patterns of movement too, which can then be translated as steps taken, stairs climbed and calories burned. Some can also monitor heart rate and sleep patterns. The data can be uploaded to a cloud-based account, enabling the user to monitor their progress. As well as collecting data, these devices can prompt daily activity by setting specific goals, such as the recommended 10,000 steps a day, and nudge the wearer with reminders when required. Regular feedback from activity trackers could be extremely valuable to health insurance companies when calculating levels of healthcare premiums.

2. Smart watches. These high-tech timepieces put phone functions on your wrist, so you can have text, email and phone notifications, browse the web and make calls via your watch. They also include built-in fitness features, such as step counting, calorie counting and heart rate monitoring. Smart watches sync your data to your smartphone.

3. Health apps. These applications can be downloaded to a smart watch or any other internet enabled device and they come in many forms including health risk questionnaires, fitness trackers, healthy eating suggestions, relaxation techniques and smart sleep tips. A health app can be tailored to deliver a comprehensive and easily accessible workplace wellness programme that keeps employees informed, inspired and engaged, with individual logins for each employee.

4. Meditation headbands. Research has shown the many benefits of regular meditation to not only relieve anxiety and stress but also to boost mental performance, engagement and creativity. These sensor-equipped headbands team up with a smartphone app to read your brain activity and help guide you into a state of relaxation and meditation. The app tracks brain activity during a three-minute session, showing how much time is spent being active, neutral and calm.

Using health data to cut costs

The promotion of employee health has a financial benefit in several ways. One is the increased productivity that comes with a culture of worker health. A study by Goldsmith’s University, London, entitled The Human Cloud at Work, revealed that wearable tech in the workplace can increase productivity by 8.5% and can also increase job satisfaction by 3.5%.

Wearable tech in the workplace can increase productivity by 8.5% and can also increase job satisfaction by 3.5%.

Another financial benefit is the decrease in medical insurance claims, which could result in reduced premiums. Earlier this year, a study evaluating medical claims of staff using wearable technology at a company in the US with 20,000 employees revealed that, after two years, the workers who opted in to the wearable tech programme cost on average USD 1,292 less per year than those who did not. This amounted to a 46% cost reduction for those using wearable devices.

Committing to a culture of health

An interesting new benefit is the measurable commitment to a culture of health and fitness, which insurance companies are beginning to recognise and encourage with lower premiums. Just as car insurance firms offer drivers the possibility of reduced premiums if they agree to fitting a monitoring device in their car, some health insurance companies are also beginning to offer discounts for employees who use wearable technology and meet certain activity thresholds.

Collecting data via wearable tech provides an unprecedented level of accurate information about your workforce that can be used to develop and monitor an effective workplace wellness scheme. This can help to pinpoint individuals or departments with specific healthcare issues and tailor specific health challenges – either competitive or co-operative – to engage and motivate employees to take the necessary steps to improvement.

Data protection and individual privacy are important issues. Rather than divulging sensitive personal data, which could dissuade a lot of employees from taking part, the data can be aggregated to give a snapshot of your workforce as a whole, which is still valuable insight for your overall wellness programme.

A wearable solution to chronic diseases

One area where individual data monitoring is valuable is that of chronic diseases, such as diabetes. For employees with specific healthcare requirements, wearables give access to personal analytics that can contribute to their wellbeing, facilitate preventative care and aid in the management of conditions. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart disease seriously undermine productivity and in the US they have been shown to account for more than 85% of healthcare costs.

Many of these long-term conditions develop from unhealthy lifestyle habits such as poor diet, little or no exercise and too much stress. Sitting is now seen as “the new smoking”, a sedentary office lifestyle being responsible for a rise in chronic health problems. By helping to address these underlying issues by encouraging the adoption of healthier lifestyles, wearable tech can help prevent many of these chronic conditions from taking hold.

Tracking activity levels and other aspects of wellbeing helps put the spotlight on unhealthy lifestyle habits and may prompt change, such as opting to take the stairs rather than the lift every day or choosing healthier food options. Researchers at the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies in the US found a 44% decrease in days off sick for employees that were daily users of wearable technology.

Some digital devices can even help flag up potential health problems. For example if your fitness tracker indicates that your usual activity level has fallen off but your heart rate is higher than usual, it could be a sign that you are coming down with flu or some other infection. Therefore, wearables, with their ever increasing capabilities, can also be important diagnostic and preventative tools for improving healthcare and ultimately reducing costs.

How to convince your workers to wear their heart on their sleeve

Wearable tech enables employee participation, encouraging individuals to take charge of their own health, which leads to a healthier, happier and more productive workforce. But not all staff are comfortable with having their every move monitored, feeling that it’s intrusive, obsessive or just a nuisance. And those least likely to buy into the tech are those with the greatest need. The challenge is to convince them of the benefits – or provide additional benefits that tip the balance.

First, though, there has to be a supportive culture of health and fitness within the company, which is led from the top. Instigating the use of wearable tech right from the start, when an individual joins the company, is a good way to demonstrate that corporate wellbeing is a high priority and that the company is prepared to invest in health.

Keeping employees (especially the least healthy ones) motivated to use wearables is key. Incentives, whether financial or motivational, play an important part. It could be as simple as a daily challenge to reach 10,000 steps, with rewards given to those who hit their targets the most often in a month. Who wouldn’t walk home instead of taking a taxi if you knew you could win three days extra annual leave? Or a biggest loser competition in terms of a weight loss programme. Connecting and competing with friends to earn points and messages of encouragement for milestones achieved is a social way of keeping track of your performance. With friendly competition and group support, people become more empowered to achieve their goals.

Keeping employees (especially the least healthy ones) motivated to use wearables is key. Incentives, whether financial or motivational, play an important part.

Putting it into practice

In 2013, oil giant BP gave 14,000 of its employees the option to wear a free Fitbit in exchange for letting the company track their steps over the year. If they crossed one million steps, they gained points that could go towards a lower health insurance premium. As financial incentives go, it’s one worth exploring. A report published in the US in 2014 asked 900 adults if they would be more likely to track their health in exchange for discounted insurance premiums. Over 57% said they would.

Staff wellbeing is not a quick fix, it’s a long-term strategy for commercial success. Investing in wearable technology can help by promoting a healthy change in workforce behaviour, as well as demonstrating your commitment to a culture of health and fitness throughout the company.

For employer and employee alike, the benefits are long lasting and profound.