Louise Norris

The Right Way to Integrate Wearables Into Your Employee Wellness Program

Wearable health trackers are everywhere, and their popularity only continues to grow. Look around any public space and you’ll see smart watches and fitness trackers on a lot of wrists. And, while those are the ubiquitous examples, other wearables detect cancer or help blind people navigate the world. Others encourage wearers to take actions like moving more or going to bed on time.

Given the wealth of data wearables can provide, it’s no surprise that these devices have won the attention of health insurers and are increasingly linked to employee incentives. Companies that manufacture wearables market extensively to employers, and they may be right to do so — a recent study found that more than half of American consumers are interested in sharing data from their devices with their insurer to earn rewards. Although the study included questions about auto, home and life insurance, respondents were the most likely to express interest in sharing data with their health insurer. The metrics wearables generate are easily quantifiable and generally more reliable than self-reported data.

Incorporating Wearables Into Your Wellness Program

You may have already heard employee requests to use wearable-collected data to earn rewards through your group’s health plan. If you’re ready to incorporate wearables into your wellness program, your health insurer, insurance broker or wellness program vendor can help you design a program that fits your needs.

Regardless of how you choose to link employee incentives to wearables, though, there are several key points to keep in mind.

Focus on Nondiscrimination

Ensure your wearables wellness program is nondiscriminatory and that differently abled employees can participate. When asked why they didn’t participate in one company’s wearable-based wellness program, employees indicated that injuries or medical conditions had prevented them from taking the required number of steps per day. Emphasize inclusivity by designing your program to accommodate a wide range of employees, with options to earn rewards for other metrics that the wearables can track, such as sleep habits and hourly movement.

This is also an important consideration when deciding which specific wearables your employees should use. A basic pedometer will only be useful for people if they’re capable of taking a significant number of steps each day. Look for wearables that can be submerged in water and track various workouts and habits to offer metrics that will be valuable to employees who aren’t able to fully participate in physical activities.

Don’t overlook the usual nondiscrimination and suitable accommodation rules. The same Equal Employment Opportunity Commission restrictions all apply to various wellness programs, depending on the structure of the program and the scope of the incentives. The program must be voluntary, and employees who don’t want to participate cannot lose access to your company’s health benefits as a result.

Implementing Your Program: The Details Matter

A number of wearables-based wellness programs are already in use, and although many are well-designed, they’re not all an equally good fit for your business. The right program is essential to getting your employees engaged and eager to participate. There are several things to keep in mind as you integrate wearables in health care:

  • Who will run the program? Will your group’s health insurance company be in charge, or will you partner with a third-party vendor? Your insurance broker may be able to make recommendations for how the program should be run, and your health insurer might even already have a program in place. Either way, it’s a good idea to have the insurer or vendor handle employee data and only provide you with aggregate data, as opposed to individualized data from each employee’s wearable. This sidesteps potential issues that could arise if an employee thinks their data might be used against them.
  • How should the program be structured? If you opt to use the program offered by your health insurer, the details — including metrics and rewards — might already be set in stone. However, third-party wellness vendors can help you to design a wearables wellness program that’s tailored to your business. Give some thought, too, to your approach. Would your employees be more motivated competing to reach goals in teams, or are they more likely to prefer completing the program individually? If you choose the team approach, be careful to avoid situations in which employees feel bullied or shamed.
  • How will you provide incentives? Do you want to provide different levels of incentives based on meeting specific thresholds — for example, one reward for taking 5,000 steps in a day, and a more significant reward for reaching 10,000 steps — or do you want to keep it simple with an all-or-nothing strategy? For the incentive itself, would cash-based rewards be the most attractive to your workforce, or do you plan to offer additional flex time or paid time off instead? A wellness program vendor can help you avoid potential pitfalls as you assess your options.

Communication and Support

It’s important to clearly communicate with your employees, both early on and then throughout their progress within the program. Explain what data the program will collect, how it will be used and stored, how you’ll protect their privacy, and the specifics of any incentives.

And be mindful of how you can support employees in their wellness goals. If your program incentivizes employees to reach 10,000 steps per day, you can make it easier for employees to reach this target by encouraging walking meetings or making the stairs more inviting. If you’re incentivizing employees to get adequate sleep each night, you can institute a rule against management sending emails after a certain time each evening.

Improving Your Odds of Success

Offering rewards based on data from wearables is one way for small businesses to keep up with competitive hiring practices and increase employee participation in the organization’s health initiatives. However, wearables shouldn’t be the single focus of a wellness program.

Wearables on their own don’t tend to change users’ behavior. The novelty of being able to track daily activity and health metrics tends to wear off fairly quickly, and the incentives you choose for success should be attractive enough to account for that.

The jury is still out on whether wellness programs that integrate wearables in health care will be successful in consistently reducing health care costs. If they are, there will be obvious direct benefits for self-insured small businesses. For businesses that purchase small group health insurance, the ACA does not allow premiums to be based on claims history or the group’s overall health — but since the benefits of a healthier workforce include reduced absenteeism, higher productivity and greater employee satisfaction, a well-designed wellness program goes far beyond lowering health insurance premiums.