Smart tech can help companies keep their employees healthier: Here's how

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Not long ago, companies would give out organisers like PalmPilots or Blackberries to employees as a perk. Of course, the point of this perk was to make them more efficient, as well as more available. Nowadays, however, an employee is much more likely to receive a wellness app or fitness device, like a Fitbit or even an Apple Watch. One recent study showed that thousands of employers have distributed wearable health devices to their workers as part of employee health programs.

It's not that companies have had a sudden fit of generosity; it's that they have come to realise that employee health is part of their bottom line. Especially now, when good workers are hard to find, companies understand that the lethargy, weakness, illness, and tiredness their employees bring to the office translate into lost money, and added expenses.

To battle that, organisations have implemented programs to support the four pillars of a healthy lifestyle - nutrition, sport, mental health and sleep. From healthier food options in the cafeteria or snack room, to providing employees with gym privileges, to helping them adopt healthier sleep habits, firms are encouraging employees to embrace a healthier lifestyle. Key to this effort is smart tech, which gathers data from employee devices and provides insights on exercise, diet, sleep and more – with the objective of improving employees' health and employers' bottom line.

Budget busters

And that bottom line is a long one. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American employers lost $225.8 billion each year - $1,685 per employee – due to worker illness and injury. But, it isn't just employees staying home that was responsible for that loss; two thirds of that figure was attributed to presenteeism - employees going to work when they’re sick or unfocused, and consequently underperforming or making mistakes. Why employees come to work when they are sick is a question in and of itself, but there is no question that it is a problem for employers as well.

According to the CDC, four of the five most expensive medical conditions – the ones that cost companies the most money – are lifestyle maladies, including heart disease, type II diabetes, obesity, and tobacco or alcohol-related issues. Even worse, 86 per cent of losses and costs are due to chronic conditions. Obesity alone (with employees missing work due to complications) costs employers $153 billion a year in lost productivity.

Mental health was another major budget-buster for organisations. According to a Penn State study, “bad days” - ones in which employees felt out of sorts due to depression, anxiety, stress, emotional issues, etc. - could end up costing the economy a whopping $16 trillion over the next 20 years, more than the cost of any other non-communicable disease.

And then there is sleep – or lack of it. A Rand Corporation study suggests that sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy 2.28 per cent of its GDP – or over $400 billion – a year. The annual cost to the US economy for co-morbidities & mental health, workplace and motor vehicle accidents and lost productivity due to undiagnosed sleep apnea is $149 billion. And insomnia, one of the most common sleep-related disorders, costs over $100 billion a year in lost workplace productivity, increased risk of accidents, and increased healthcare utilisation.

Modern tech, in the form of devices and apps, is available to help solve, or at least alleviate, many of these issues. Used wisely, devices and health apps can go a long way to improving health, and cutting losses for businesses.

Exercise motivation: One of the biggest issues in personal health is getting people off the couch, or out from behind the desk. Encouraging them to exercise on whatever level – walking, running, swimming, etc – is key to improving health. Fitness apps and devices include challenges, group efforts and contests, goals, etc. - all geared to subtly pushing users to go a bit further.

Organisations can use both big data and gamification to further encourage employees. Analysing the aggregate information on employees (obviously the data needs to be anonymised, or employees need to give their consent to being recorded), organisations can design a customised exercise and leisure program for workers, setting goals and providing rewards for those who reach them.

Nutrition: There are dozens of apps and devices that can help record, classify and plan meals and food consumption for users. The objective is not necessarily getting in shape, or even significant weight loss, but to get users to eat a healthy diet, with the right balance of nutrients. Employers can supply healthy snacks and meals, but it would be inefficient if they do not then help ensure employees actually embrace these habits – instead of running to a fast food joint when they have the opportunity.

There has been a lot of research in recent years on methods to encourage healthier eating. One of these, called intervention mapping, entails putting together support groups involving both dietitians and psychologists. Combined with support from apps and devices to keep track of exercise and diet, such programs have shown marked success, according to researchers. Organisations can use the information aggregated from apps, diaries and other sources to build programs that will lead to the best results in the most efficient manner for their staff, with the intervention mapping sessions encouraging participants to eat more healthfully. Here, too, gamification could have a major impact, with employees rewarded for reaching weight or nutrition goals. Intervention mapping, scientists say, could also be utilised for other purposes, such as helping employees maintain mental health.

Getting a better night's sleep: According to many scientists, getting enough quality sleep is key to good mental, physical and nutritional health, as well as reducing the number of accidents and increasing productivity – so it pays for employers to pay attention to their employees' sleep habits, as well. Aside from providing nap time and other in-office measures to encourage better sleep habits, employers can also take a tech approach to the issue. For example, apps that collect data about how an individual sleeps (using data culled from questionnaires, mobile behaviour, devices, etc.), analysing sleep performance, providing recommendations on sleep hygiene (caffeine and alcohol consumption, gadget exposure etc.), bedroom optimisation issues (temperature, lighting, etc.), sleep schedule, relaxation methods, and more in order to ensure a better night's sleep.

The first step in improving sleep is getting data about it, and there are numerous devices on the market today to assess sleep. With sleep disorders being such a major issue, tech firms have developed numerous approaches to monitoring, many of them based on devices that use cameras, sensors, and even brainwaves to gather data. Gathering that data, of course, is key to developing a program to help solve sleep issues - but in order to be useful, data has to be analysed and converted into an actionable plan, individually tailored to each user.

To do that, we need a smart data analysis system, with the data gathered from various sources evaluated to develop a plan for users. The plan will include specific actions users can take to help promote better sleep, making specific recommendations on lifestyle, bedroom issues, how to relax, etc. And, because the analytics system is a smart one, it is able to constantly improve and sharpen recommendations, ensuring that the user is presented with a comprehensive plan that, if followed, is likely to produce a better night’s sleep.

After the economic shocks and mass layoffs of the last recession, the popular notion of the company as a family began to wane; it was every wo/man for her/himself. But, as health matters have become more important to both employers and employees, the notion of family is beginning to creep back into the employer-employee relationship. The only difference now? Instead of a big brother or sister, the boss these days is a little like your parents – encouraging you to eat your veggies, and to get a good night's sleep.

Nir Levy, CTO, dayzz
Image Credit: Lightpoet / Shutterstock