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Would you wear a Fitbit for work?

December 19, 2016

CHICAGO — Fitness trackers — those sleek devices often strapped to wrists — are starting to become nearly 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 programs may not be truly optional. It also remains unclear whether workplace trackers consistently improve employee health or save employers money on health care costs.

This year, 31 percent of 540 companies with 1,000 or more employees surveyed by brokerage and consultancy Willis Towers Watson offered wearable activity trackers to workers. Another 23 percent 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," said LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health. Employees like the personalized feedback and bonding with co-workers over fitness goals, she said.

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 percent 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 6-mile walk, spend his lunch break marching along the Chicago River and hike 2 miles to work rather than take a bus.

"The more I was doing, the more I wanted to do," Doniparthi said. 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 $100.

Anne Leyden, TransUnion executive vice president of human resources, said 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 said the goal was employee support, not cost-cutting.

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

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

"The healthier they are, the better chance I have of them coming to work," Rektorski said.

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 program had $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 also have been raised about the trackers, and corporate wellness programs in general. Some, such as the AARP, also worry that if the financial rewards for employees are too big, then such programs are no longer really voluntary because opting out means missing out.

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

The AARP argues that high financial stakes effectively make wellness programs 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 percent of 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 percent of those unwilling to share cited a desire to protect their privacy.

Promoters of wearable programs in the workplace, however, say employees need not fear their employers getting hold of private fitness information without their permission.

Employers see much of the data in aggregate form. That means a company using Fitbit’s corporate wellness program, for example, might be able to see sleep patterns for employees as a whole, but they wouldn’t know every time an individual worker stays up too late on a work night, said Amy McDonough, vice president and general manager of Fitbit Group Health.

If an employer wants to run a steps contest such as TransUnion’s, employees would give consent for their company to see their individual steps, McDonough said.

Some also question the fairness of wearable workplace programs that offer monetary rewards for hitting activity goals.

Timothy Huey, a salesman at Hino of Chicago, which is using trackers as part of a program offered through insurer UnitedHealthcare, said he wonders whether older people can realistically meet some of the program’s goals.

As part of that UnitedHealthcare program, workers at small companies can earn up to $3 a day for their health savings accounts (pre-tax accounts that can be used to pay for medical expenses in high deductible plans) if they walk 300 steps within five minutes six times a day; 3,000 steps within 30 minutes each day; and a total of 10,000 steps a day.

If all goals are met, an employee could earn up to $1,095 a year in savings. Workers at larger companies can get even bigger incentives. Employees get the devices at no cost to them.

"I would see how older people would have a real hard time reaching any of these goals," Huey said.

Huey, 63, is grateful for the program overall. It dovetails with his and his wife’s recent commitment to live healthier lives. It’s also helped him increase his number of daily steps by about 50 percent. But he called the specific goals unattainable for someone like himself who commutes two hours a day by car and has a desk job.

Those concerns, however, haven’t stopped employers from increasingly adopting fitness tracker programs 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 program will be good for his truck dealership business and his employees.

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

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Associated Press