Would you wear a Fitbit for work? Employers giving them out to staff, but some worry about data privacy

Employers see the benefit of healthy staff, not least in saving on health care costs, and employees bond over shared fitness goals, but how optional are wellness programmes and who sees fitness trackers’ data?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 5:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 5:30am

Fitness trackers – those sleek devices often strapped to wrists – are starting to become almost as common as employee badges at some companies. But how much do they help workers? How much do they help the companies that offer the wearables to their employees?

Companies say they offer them to make work more fun, improve workers’ health, boost employee productivity or save money on health insurance costs. Some employees and advocacy groups, however, worry that fitness trackers might invade an employee’s privacy and that some wellness programmes may not be truly optional. It also remains unclear whether workplace trackers consistently improve employee health or save employers money on health care costs.

In 2016, 31 per cent of 540 companies in the United States with 1,000 or more employees surveyed in the US by brokerage and consultancy Willis Towers Watson offered wearable activity trackers to workers. Another 23 per cent said they were considering doing so in the next two years.

“You can’t dismiss it and say it’s a flash in the pan,” says LuAnn Heinen, vice-president of the National Business Group on Health. Employees like the personalised feedback and bonding with co-workers over fitness goals, she says.

This summer more than 1,000 employees at TransUnion, a Chicago-based data and analytics company, donned Fitbits in an optional competition to see which employees, floors and offices could log the most steps. TransUnion helped pay for the Fitbits, and about 30 per cent of the 1,300 employees in the company’s Chicago office took part.

That included Gopi Doniparthi. The 52-year-old analyst signed on because he loves a challenge. He eventually worked his way up to 40,000 steps a day. He’d wake before sunrise for a 10km walk, spend his lunch break marching along the Chicago River and hike 3km to work rather than take a bus.

“The more I was doing, the more I wanted to do,” Doniparthi says. Doniparthi, who has type-2 diabetes, lost body fat and saw his blood sugar levels drop. “I didn’t want to do dieting. I wanted a lifestyle change.”

The winning office – the company’s Philippines location – got to choose a charity to receive a company donation, and the individual company winner got US$100.

Anne Leyden, TransUnion executive vice-president of human resources, says the competition injected a bit of fun into the workplace. Employees walked in groups and posted pictures of themselves walking on social media.

TransUnion didn’t measure whether the competition shrunk its health care costs or made employees more productive because Leyden says the goal was employee support, not cost-cutting.

But not all companies that offer programmes are doing so just for fun.

David Rektorski, owner of a Hino truck dealership in Chicago, is confident the clip-on Trio trackers his workers just started wearing will save the company money as well as act as a perk.

“The healthier they are, the better chance I have of them coming to work,” Rektorski says.

It’s not totally clear, however, whether trackers in the workplace always lead to better health or lower costs.

Fitbit recently released a study showing that after two years, employees who took part in a Fitbit corporate wellness programme had US$1,300 less a year, on average, in total annual health care costs.

But other studies question how much of a difference wearables really make. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September found young adults donning wearables and dieting actually lost less weight over two years than those who dieted without fitness trackers.

Privacy issues have also been raised about the trackers, and corporate wellness programmes in general. Some, such as the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), also worry that if the financial rewards for employees are too big, then such programmes are no longer really voluntary because opting out means missing out.

We’re in the maintenance business, so we understand preventative maintenance. We try to apply that to ourselves as much as possible
David Rektorski

In October, the AARP sued the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over new federal rules that allow companies to offer employees savings of up to 30 per cent on the cost of their health insurance if they participate in a wellness programme or achieve certain health goals.

The AARP argues that high financial stakes effectively make wellness programmes compulsory rather than voluntary. The AARP also argued that high financial incentives could pressure workers to “reveal medical and genetic information likely to facilitate illegal workplace discrimination”.

The AARP isn’t alone in its concerns over privacy. Only 9 per cent of US consumers using internet-connected health devices or apps said they’d be willing to share digitally collected health data – such as fitness, heart rate, sleep and blood pressure – with an employer, according to a 2016 HealthMine Digital Health Survey. About 45 per cent of those unwilling to share cited a desire to protect their privacy.

Those concerns, however, haven’t stopped US employers from increasingly adopting fitness tracker programmes for employees. It’s a chance for employers to dial into the general excitement over wearable fitness trackers.

Rektorski, with Hino of Chicago, says he believes UnitedHealthcare’s wearables programme will be good for his truck dealership business and his employees.

“We’re in the maintenance business, so we understand preventative maintenance,” Rektorski says. “We try to apply that to ourselves as much as possible.”