‘Wearables’ can help health and wellbeing, but employers must tread carefully

Wearable technologies such as FitBit can help to promote health and wellbeing and more active lifestyles, but employers should be wary about giving them out as a workplace “perk”.

Health and wellbeing-based wearable technologies such as FitBit are becoming increasingly popular, with some 20.7 million devices having been sold worldwide, as of last year.

But to assume therefore that, as an employer, one way to encourage your employees to step up when it comes to health, wellbeing and activity is to offer such devices as a workplace perk could well be misguided.

This is because the use of wearables in the workplace, especially when they are linked to an employer, is hampered by a lack of trust and worries about security, according to research from management consultancy firm PwC.

Despite an estimated three million people in the UK buying a wearable device in 2015 – a 118% increase from the previous year – PwC’s research has suggested employees are still unconvinced about using wearables in the workplace.

PwC surveyed more than 2,000 workers across the UK and, positively from a workplace health and wellbeing perspective, found two thirds (65%) wanted their employer to take an active role in their health and wellbeing, and felt technology should be used to help them do this.

Yet under half (46%) of those surveyed said they would accept a free piece of wearable technology if their employers had access to the data recorded.

Even if this information was collected in exchange for workplace benefits, such as flexible working hours and working from different locations, the number of people who would use a wearable device at work still only rose to just over half (55%).

Four out of 10 said they did not fully trust their employer to use the data gathered for their benefit, and just under two fifths (37%) said they did not trust their employer not to use the data against them in some way.

Anthony Bruce, people analytics leader at PwC, said: “Despite more people owning wearable devices, many people are still reluctant to use them in the workplace due to trust issues. Employers haven’t been able to overcome the ‘big brother’ reaction from people to sharing their personal data.

“Digital tools and analytics advances could be the key to unlocking a more engaged, happy and higher performing workforce – but first employers must gain the trust and confidence of their people to acquire, store and use personal data appropriately. If employers want to overcome the trust gap they need to show that they are serious about data security and communicate openly with their staff about the benefits for them,” he added.

The message here for employers therefore is twofold. First, and more positively, there does appear to be a market and appetite for such devices. Wearable technology is becoming increasingly accepted and a mainstream part of working life.

But, second, this transition, at the moment, only goes so far. Yes, employees do appear to like such devices in principle, but to offer them as a workplace perk may actually backfire. There remain very real barriers and suspicions regarding such devices being offered as a benefit by employers because of the issues over data capture that can arise.

It may therefore be wiser for employers to look at simply offering incentives or benefits that allow employees to buy their own devices for their personal use.

It sounds counter-intuitive. But if the result is a healthier, fitter workforce, then that’s going to be a “win, win” all round.

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