Wellness wearables: How fitness trackers have changed employee engagement | Crain's Toronto

Wellness wearables: How fitness trackers have changed employee engagement

The rising use of wellness wearables offers a wealth of possibilities for integration of these and similar tools into corporate health and wellness programs, contests and activities. | Photo courtesy of Pixabay. 

Is corporate wellness at the top of your new year’s resolutions?

The growing use of tech wearables to track fitness is changing corporate wellness programs for the better, introducing metrics and analysis to drive corporate engagement in the digital age. Helping employees to keep their new year’s resolutions to stay fit and healthy throughout the year can in turn benefit the bottom line.

Wearables provide employees with “an opportunity to be more consciously well,” says Cindy Kennedy, a human resource consultant based in the Greater Toronto Area. While employees benefit from increased physical activity and engagement, employers can benefit with a boost to their bottom line. “Wellness is a defence against the rising cost of corporate healthcare benefits such as drug plans,” says Kennedy.

Tech wearables have evolved from basic pedometers and heart rate monitors to digital pedometers, such as the popular FitBit, the top-selling fitness tracker in North America. Its base of active users grew to more than 25 million in 2017.

Altogether, more than 70 million fitness wearables are in use in the U.S. alone, according to research cited by Ceridian, the global human capital management company that sells human resource software and services. That number will continue to grow as tech wearables evolve through smartphone apps and even smart garments.

Technology defines today’s digital HR

Ironically, technology has defined human resources in the digital age, as the HR software market has grown to more than $14 billion. Within the larger market of cloud-based HR systems, a new market has emerged that focuses on wellness and engagement tools, dominated by companies such as Lifeworks, Vitality, Sprout, Limeade, and Virgin Pulse. Among the smaller companies and apps worth noting are Lifespeak, Headspace, Whil, BucketList and Toronto-based Ikkuma, a cloud-based wellness program.

“Corporate wellness programs are on the rise and the reason is two-fold,” says Sarah Aronsberg, director of strategy & ops with Ikkuma. “One, because the recognition that doing things as a team, creating a culture of wellness, will help to elevate the level of accountability and responsibility to keep up with what you’re doing.

"Secondly, since most people spend a great amount of time at work, organizations are recognizing the importance of taking care of their employees’ health and wellness.”

Lifeworks is a good example of the integration of HCM technology and wearable wellness programs. The company was created in 2016 as a joint venture by London-based WorkAngel and Ceridian. Its mobile employee engagement platform syncs wearable trackers such as smartphones and FitBits with HR software platforms.

According to Lifeworks, 13 million fitness wearables will be part of employee wellness programs in 2018, as nearly half of all employers include wearables as part of their wellness strategies. There’s a reason for their popularity: Fitness wearable users who participate in team challenges are 27 per cent more active when they engage in corporate wellness programs.

Wellness wearables like FitBit can help to reduce benefit costs, but they can also ensure employees are using their benefits fully. Many organizations, says Kennedy, provide employees with a healthy lifestyle allowance that often goes unused due to a lack of awareness or engagement. Implementing a wellness program with a wearables challenge encourages employees to access their benefits as they are meant to be used.

Taking the right steps to employee wellness

For many companies, wellness wearable programs conveniently combine multiple strategic objectives. In one such organization, according to Kennedy, a FitBit steps challenge combined corporate wellness, employee engagement, and the implementation of a new HR software platform.

“We were looking for ways for employees to engage with each other across teams,” says Kennedy. “We had also implemented a new wellness and support platform and we needed to move as quickly as possible to get people engaged with it, which would ultimately support HR in lowering our costs.”

The metrics were beneficial.

“We knew how many people were participating and we were looking for high participation rates. But just as important was the water-cooler conversation," Kennedy continues. "The chatter on the ground around the FitBit steps challenge owned that space for a few weeks.”

Aronsberg acknowledges that wearable technology is continuously growing, especially with the advent of artificial intelligence. She warns, however, that wearables do not hold the engagement of their users for long. “When you look at the wellness space, there are many branches that may further identify with users, helping to attract and retain user engagement by best suiting to their needs, and tapping into a motivation that drives that individual,” says Aronsberg.

Kennedy says that, in her experience, while engagement grew in the second year, the diversity of technology also increased, as employees used their allowances for their own, preferred technologies. If you are thinking about implementing a wellness wearables challenge, however, “you have to get your rules right,” says Kennedy, “to avoid misunderstandings and mistakes.”

LifeWorks suggests five key to success:

  • Set realistic goals
  • Keep the program simple
  • Encourage leadership participation
  • Promote, promote, promote; and
  • Offer meaningful rewards.

However, even LifeWorks says that wearables are not a source of long-term motivation – don’t expect them to be a “silver bullet” for employee engagement and motivation.

“The thrill of competition drives engagement,” says Kennedy. “But think long and hard about the frequency of the challenge, because the second time can have a ‘been there, done that’ feel.”

The overall impact, however, can be “absolutely” positive, she adds. “When you can get your organization talking about one thing – wellness – it really brings employees together.”

January 17, 2018 - 11:11am