Wearables and company wellness programs go hand-in-hand

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Welcome to the employee wellness program at Iron Mountain, dubbed LiveWell.

About 1,600 of the company's 8,000 U.S. employees use different types of consumer-grade wearable devices, such as Fitbit or Apple Watch, to measure how many steps they take and to generate other fitness metrics.

Iron Mountain, a records and data management company, gives employees points for completing various health-focused "challenges" that can be converted later to cash. Challenges include agreeing to drink more than 32 ounces of water each of four days in a week; eating four servings of fruits and vegetables a day; watching a video on ways to reduce stress; and walking 2 million steps over the course of a year.

Of those examples, only the 2 million steps challenge requires connecting a wearable device to a computer portal used by workers in Iron Mountain's LiveWell wellness program. The portal was created with software from Limeade, one of around a dozen providers to companies setting up wellness programs.

Limeade worked with another technology vendor, Aduro, starting in 2013 to help create the wellness program at Iron Mountain under the direction of Scott Kirschner, director of benefits strategy at Iron Mountain.

"We absolutely are fascinated and interested in the possibilities of electronic connections and remote-monitoring devices," Kirschner said in an interview. "I don't want to know individuals' [fitness] results, but we see these tools as ways to keep people interested and engaged..."

"It's part of our overall culture," he added. "For workers, this is about your health, helping you be the best person you can be. It's not about the company wanting to know your personal data."

Iron Mountain is one example of a massive U.S. trend toward workplace wellness programs that increasingly rely on using fitness data from wearables worn by workers.

One-half to two-thirds of U.S. employers with 15 or more workers have instituted some type of wellness program, according to recent statistics from the U.S Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). That translates into 586,000 companies.

Meanwhile, fully half of fitness band sales in the U.S. are to companies that pass the devices along to employees, sometimes at no charge, for fitness-related activities, according to Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder.

The bottom line for Iron Mountain: The LiveWell program has helped boost employee wellness, reduced doctor visits and lowered the company's health care costs for the first time since 2013, Kirschner said. In other words, the portion that workers are contributing for health care insurance and investments by the company's internally managed fund have left the fund net-positive for the past two years; by comparison, the company's costs were rising 10% a year for the decade before 2013.

"We have achieved these results because wellness is just one component of a total health strategy," Kirschner wrote recently in a public comment on a controversial proposed rule by the EEOC that would affect employer wellness programs. Iron Mountain's results, he added, came "without significant cost-shifting to employees."

Carrot, not stick

Rewards work well for motivating workers to better fitness, Kirschner said. For example, for drinking 32 ounces of water a day for four out of seven days, a worker gets 20 points. For walking 2 million steps in a year (about 5,500 steps a day), a worker gets 100 points. When a worker reaches 1,000 points, Iron Mountain offers some assistance on a life insurance plan. At 2,000 points, there's a cash payout of $200, and for 3,000 points, the payout reaches $400.

While 100 points for 2 million steps might sound cheap, there's plenty of worker interest. Each year, about 1,200 workers reach 3,000 or more points, Kirschner said. One woman who reached the 2 million step threshold reported she is "never off her feet," Kirschner said. She walks around her job site instead of relying on a golf cart and corrals two children at home.

Growing workplace interest in wearables

While wearable devices aren't required for the lion's share of Iron Mountain wellness challenges, the devices have boosted the LiveWell program's profile and are set to take a bigger role.

Work groups occasionally buy the same fitness device and then exercise using the same fitness app so they can easily share their results among members of the group. The social aspect increases friendly competitiveness and keeps people engaged.

After two years with LiveWell, there are now 88 different apps and devices supported at Iron Mountain. The devices come from Fitbit, Jawbone, Pebble, Apple Watch, Moto 360, about 10 different Garmin devices and many others. "Some of the users are religious about it," Kirschner said.

Iron Mountain doesn't offer the devices to workers for free so far -- as some employer wellness programs do -- but is planning on discounts combined with points earned so that workers and their families can purchase devices in an upcoming online Iron Mountain fitness mall.

Low levels of concern over data privacy

During the two years of LiveWell, only one employee has raised questions about how the devices are used by Iron Mountain, he said.

"Up-front, we have been clear we will never see individual data results and people will not be judged based on how many steps they are taking or exercising," he said. "It's all about making you as healthy and productive as you can be. It's rewards-based, not a punitive approach."

A worker's data showing he or she took 2 million steps is kept by Limeade, not Iron Mountain, Kirschner said. A worker's wearable device records the steps, which are then linked to an app from the device maker, which in turn connects to Limeade via an application programming interface (API) created at Iron Mountain.

"We don't verify the data and we only know that someone reached 2 million steps," he said. "We don't collect individual results."

While LiveWell is a voluntary program, there are some wellness and privacy experts who are concerned that wellness programs remain truly voluntary and that the personal data generated in those programs is kept confidential.

The EEOC is also concerned. Much of its focus has been on how wellness programs can benefit disabled persons who could never enroll in a program to take millions of steps or do other intense exercises. The EEOC's proposed rule would amend regulations used to implement Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as related to employer wellness programs.

The EEOC is accepting public comments through this Friday on the proposal and is expected to issue a ruling sometime next year, according to attorneys following the case. The EEOC hopes to offer guidance on the extent that employers use financial and other incentives to get workers to participate in wellness programs.

Workplace wellness programs that make use of fitness bands and other wearables have been steadily on the rise in the past three years, and are expected to gain more steam with the introduction of the Apple Watch and a flood of new Android Wear devices. Fitbit and Jawbone regularly update their devices and have expanded the list of retailers that sell them.

Next: Wearables for workplace wellness face federal scrutiny.

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