Are wearable devices the key to improving employee wellness?

Wearable technology - what isn’t your bracelet telling you?

Wearable technology is quickly becoming incorporated into many corporate wellness programs. According to a study conducted by research firm Canalys, 8 million activity tracking devices, like heart rate monitors and step counters, are expected to ship by the end of 2014. The group predicts that the number will reach 23 million by 2015 and 45 million by 2017. Many companies are using the devices in their health programs, because they are inexpensive and many administrators see them as a way to reduce healthcare costs. 

According to a recent CIO Magazine article, however, many experts in the employee benefits field are questioning how beneficial wearable technology is for a company's bottom line. Daniel McCaffrey, a behavioral scientist with the consulting firm Endeavour Partners cited the following reasons why health devices may not be effective:

  • Although they are less expensive than full medical devices, wrist bands and step counters can get pricey, especially when a company is buying hundreds of them. It may take years for these products to get down to a price at which companies see a significant return on investment.
  • Basic fitness programs are typically not beneficial for employees who are already very physically active and workers who express no interest in participating. It's usually a very small percentage of employees who are ready for a major behavior modification. 
  • Some employees will be wary of using these health-related devices due to privacy concerns. 

So while wearable devices and the information they provide may be useful to some, these studies point out critical limitations for offering them as part of employee health and wellness programs. The main problem being that they focus almost exclusively on the physical with little regard for the mental, emotional and behavioral aspects of stress which is what most companies are trying to impact in the first place.

The #1 issue for employees in the workplace is stress, something that is not directly measured with these devices. If organizations truly want to help employees with health and wellness, and decrease their healthcare costs, they've got to go beyond  "eat your broccoli and take the stairs" and look for solutions that assess stress and build resiliency through a whole person – body, mind, emotions and behaviors – approach.

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