Man looking at his smart watch

How Employers Are Using Wearables with Wellness Programs

By Haley Bass | 10/27/2016

A 2013 study from ABI Research predicted that by 2018, U.S. employers would integrate more than 13 million wearable health and fitness tracking devices into their employee wellness programs. Nearing the end of 2016, close to 21% of U.S. adults with online access use a wearable device,1 and approximately 46% of employers offer fitness trackers as part of their wellness programs.2

Technology is influential in almost every aspect of our lives, including our health (check out how Apple has influenced healthcare). Employers have taken advantage of this trend to boost engagement and increase the social factor of their wellness programs – and they’re finding success!

In a 2015 study by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), 54% of employers said that the majority of their employees were still using their wearable devices six months after the program launched, and 95% of employers said they would continue offering fitness trackers as part of their wellness programs due to high employee satisfaction with the devices.

However, you can’t just hand an employee a Fitbit and expect change to happen – you need to have a plan. Here are some of the ways different companies are addressing wearables in their wellness program.

How are employers are getting into fitness trackers?

You can’t force your employees to participate in a wellness program, but you can provide ways to help them get involved. Buffer, a San Francisco social media startup, issues Jawbone Up devices to its employees, as part of an agreement to participate in its wellness program. Software company Autodesk issues Fitbit devices to help change employees’ health behaviors, but has no requirement for participating.3

After learning that Fitbit users who have at least one friend with a Fitbit get 27% more steps, Houston Methodist subsidized the cost of the devices for both employees and their spouses or partners.4 Iron Mountain, a records and data management company, provides incentives for employees who use a wearable device, but do not currently pay for them.5

What do employers measure from these devices?

Most companies are using the wearable devices to track steps, creating daily, weekly, or annual goals for employees to complete. Iron Mountain challenges its employees to walk two million steps in a year. Autodesk employees measure their steps through Fitbit, and encourage friendly competition to find new ways to increase their steps every day.

Buffer tracks employee steps and sleep patterns, and employees are encouraged to share their progress with each other as a source of accountability.

It’s important to note that participation in these programs does allow a certain amount of anonymity to be lifted, giving employers access to aggregated data pulled from fitness trackers. While exact info is not linked back to the individual, using the aggregate data becomes a wealth of knowledge into an employer’s workforce health. Most times this info is used to design enhancements to benefits programs and tailor incentives to further enhance health and performance in the workplace, more than any punishment or negative impact.

Bank of America regularly addresses these fears through clear communication and assurance. They even went as far as not increasing insurance premium rates for any of its U.S. employees in its wellness program’s second year to prove that their employees’ information was safe.6

What’s the incentive of using a health and fitness wearable device?

While most companies offer financial incentives for meeting wellness goals, several organizations are finding that wearable use has become a reward in itself.

By sharing their fitness data with coworkers, Buffer has developed an open and transparent philosophy that has positively impacted the company’s productivity. More than half of the workers at Autodesk participate in their wearable program. They enjoy the social aspect of friendly competition, so successes have become a regular conversation in the office.

BP allows employees to earn wellness points which can be traded in for other rewards. Iron Mountain also provides points for meeting health goals, and employees can earn up to a $400 payout. But they’ve seen that employees are more invested in the satisfaction of success than the money.

What success are employers finding?

Employers that have successfully implemented wearables into their wellness programs are seeing more productivity, lower health costs, and healthier, happier employees.

Once they added the wearable aspect to their program, Iron Mountain saw reduced doctor visits and overall lowered health care costs for the first time since 2013. Because Houston Methodist included spouses and partners in their Fitbit initiative, 90% of employees participated in the wellness program and averaged 16,000 steps per day.

The competition at Autodesk motivated employees to park further away from the office and go the long way to meetings to increase their steps. BP’s workforce benefited with an increase in daily productivity and other health effects from regular activity.

Thinking of using wellness wearables at your workplace? Know your workforce, know your health goals, and determine the best way to make wearables work for your company’s wellness program.