— Fitness trackers — those sleek devices often strapped to
wrists — are starting to become nearly as common as employee
badges at some companies.
much do they help workers? How much do they help the companies
that offer the wearables to their employees?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
winning office — the company’s Philippines location —
got to choose a charity to receive a company donation, and the
individual company winner got $100.
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.
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.
all companies that offer programs are doing so just for fun.
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
healthier they are, the better chance I have of them coming to
work," Rektorski said.
not totally clear, however, whether trackers in the workplace
always lead to better health or lower costs.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
of wearable programs in the workplace, however, say employees
need not fear their employers getting hold of private fitness
information without their permission.
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.
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.
also question the fairness of wearable workplace programs that
offer monetary rewards for hitting activity goals.
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.
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.
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.
would see how older people would have a real hard time
reaching any of these goals," Huey said.
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.
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.
with Hino of Chicago, says he believes UnitedHealthcare’s
wearables program will be good for his truck dealership
business and his employees.
in the maintenance business, so we understand preventative
maintenance," Rektorski said. "We try to apply that
to ourselves as much as possible."