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Wearables at work: the challenges and opportunities for business

(Image credit: Image Credit: Franklin Heijnen / Flickr)

Followers of CES will have noted that this year’s event had a strong focus on wearables and the developments that are giving this technology unprecedented functionality.

It’s a time of significant growth for the wearables industry, with the sector already worth hundreds of millions of pounds. This is driven by their widespread appeal. Wearables are no longer the preserve of elite athletes and fitness enthusiasts; in fact, in 2019, roughly 10 per cent of the UK’s population were using them.

These devices have grown rapidly in sophistication, so that they now give access to a wealth of health data. They can identify the signs of ageing and monitor blood pressure, right through to tracking sleep and even glucose levels. Previously, this level of medical insight would have demanded a trip to the GP and likely several tests.

And it’s not just individuals who are benefitting from wearables – businesses too are waking up to their potential to improve the wellbeing of employees and generate data able to make a real impact at boardroom level.

A healthier workforce around the world

Most global employers understand that a healthy workforce is likely to be a happier and more productive one. Wearables could be a key tool in achieving this.

By tapping into the data generated by wearables, companies could gain real-time insights into the activity levels of their workforce, enabling them to create more targeted, better communicated wellbeing strategies.

If we then add artificial intelligence (AI) to the equation, the potential for pre-emptive care and cost savings then becomes huge. For example, if we were able to look at the current activity levels of employees, in combination with other health factors, such as their propensity to any hereditary conditions, employers could help assess their likelihood of ill health later in life.

Giving employees an early warning that they’re placing themselves at increased risk of poor health could encourage them to alter their behaviour. Employers too would benefit as a healthier workforce results in lower health insurance premiums and fewer days lost to sickness and ill health.

Bearing the above in mind, it’s unsurprising that employers are beginning to introduce wearables into their workplaces. Our recent research found that 33 per cent of businesses already collect data from wearables, with this figure set to more than double in the next three years; skyrocketing to 81 per cent.

Gathering this information isn’t limited to those in the office – employers are able to check in on the wellbeing of their people all around the world, no matter where they’re working. This could be particularly pertinent for employees working from home who may experience more sedentary working styles.

When large swathes of the workforce are working remotely, such as during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, being able to see the resulting impacts on activity will allow employers to further tailor their benefits recommendations. For example, by offering access to virtual fitness tools or apps that coach users through simple exercises or encourage them to move around more. Similarly, they may be able to offer access to tools such as wellness apps or mindfulness programmes which can help people to take a break from their workspaces and boost their mental health during extended periods away from the office.

Getting over the data hurdle

To make the most of the insights this data can offer, companies first need to ensure their people trust how it will be used. It’s no secret that trust in data collection has taken a hammering in recent years and it’s easy to see why people might feel reticent about sharing personal medical data with their bosses.

It’s crucial that employees are confident that information collected about them won’t jeopardise their position in the company or impact their progression. For example, if genetic testing revealed a pre-disposition to heart disease or diabetes, people need to trust that their bosses won’t shy away from giving them more responsibility or a promotion in anticipation of time off for sickness that may or may not come.

The resulting effects on private medical insurance also need to be considered. For those that are identified as being susceptible to these conditions, there may be concerns that they’d see premium hikes after being deemed ‘higher risk’.

In addition, the legal requirements mandated by GDPR add another layer of complexity to the mix. There is no justification for employers to share or store individuals’ health data – meaning that drilling down to the micro level of an employees’ potential health outcomes could contravene legislation.

That being said, the macro-level data that wearables can offer businesses is still of significant value. Having an overall understanding of activity levels within the workplace and being able to compare this with days lost to sickness, can help tell a story about the general health of employees.

It’s also likely that some form of wearable data or fitness tracking will become a requirement for insurance providers, particularly against the backdrop of an ageing workforce.

For example, UK insurer, Vitality, allows employees to link their fitness tracker or mobiles to their scheme to earn points and rewards for adopting a healthy lifestyle. Meanwhile, in the US, insurer John Hancock took this one step further and was one of the first in the industry to apply mandatory fitness tracking to all its schemes.

The road ahead

With wearables clearly on the rise, it’s up to businesses to put the right processes and safeguards in place if they want to capitalise on the data generated by this technology. There’s a wealth of data available, whether that be on a micro or macro level, and much of it is as yet, untapped. Being able to access even a small proportion of this could unlock brand new insights into employees and help organisations create a culture that promotes healthier lifestyles. There are undeniably some challenges ahead, particularly in terms of data access and public trust, but for companies willing to invest the time in tackling these and embracing the potential of wearables, the result could be a happier and more productive workforce.

Chris Bruce, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Thomsons Online Benefits