14 ways to improve corporate wellness programs with wearables

Corporate wellness experts share dos and don't of wearable-based corporate health and wellness programs, along with advice on how to enhance and improve your organizations current employee fitness initiatives.

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Many modern companies, large and small, are adopting employee wellness programs, which often include fitness challenges that take advantage of wearable technologies. These programs can help lower healthcare costs, reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, but they can also subject companies to legal challenges or otherwise backfire without proper implementation.

At Fitbit's recent Captivate 2015 conference in San Francisco, experts from various industries shared tips, best practices and lessons learned from their experiences with fitness and wellness programs tied to wearables. The multi-location conference, which debuted in Chicago on September 16, had about 130 attendees in San Francisco on September 29, and it moves on to the final destination, New York, on October 13. Here are some of the best tips from the speakers in San Francisco. 

Employee wellness plans, privacy and compliance

1) Show employees their personal information is secure

Several speakers emphasized that organizations should show (not tell) employees that health and fitness data is secure.

Some employees initially hesitate to share steps counts or other health data with their employers, according to Jim Huffman, senior vice president and head of U.S. Health and Wellness Benefits for Bank of America. These people worry that the information could negatively affect their insurance premiums, chances for promotions or opportunities for raises. 

[Related: Fitness trackers are changing online privacy — and it's time to pay attention]

Bank of America is "loud and clear" when it regularly addresses such fears in employee communications and assures staff such information won't be used against them. Buffman said companies have to "prove it," too. In the second year of its wellness program, for example, Bank of America didn't increase health insurance premium rates for any of its U.S. employees, even though the company's own costs rose. Bank of America leaders felt it was important to "pay it forward" and demonstrate to employees that participating in its fitness programs is only beneficial. However, Huffman adds that organizations will "always have a portion of employees who will not share their information." 

2) Go above and beyond to protect employee data 

Wellness and fitness program managers should "take extraordinary steps" to protect sensitive information collected via wellness programs, Huffman said. He also suggested that companies work closely with HR managers to assure staff that their wellness program teams don't have access to sensitive data, such as employee health insurance claims. 

Eric Dreiband, a partner with law firm Jones Day, stressed the importance of maintaining a secure "firewall" between data collected by wearable technology and personnel records. The goal is to keep staff health and fitness data away from supervisors or other decision makers, so that it cannot inadvertently affect employee pay or promotions.

If that data isn't kept separate, and there's an employee complaint, the government could investigate and file a lawsuit, according to Dreiband. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued companies in the past because their wellness programs allegedly violated federal anti-discrimination laws when they coerced people to participate. 

3) Stay up to data on relevant regulations

Organizations that use wearables to collect employee data need to be clear on the potential compliance and legal issues related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Dreiband said. Wellness plans that collect medical information, such as heart rate and blood pressure, must be voluntary and may not carry a penalty for non-participation in any way, or they could violate the ADA, for example.

Putting employee fitness data to work

4) Compare anonymous fitness data and business goals

Whenever possible, it's a good idea to tie aggregated, anonymous data from corporate wellness program or fitness challenges to metrics that measure business goals, according to Liz Boehm, experience innovation network director for Vocera, a healthcare communication system vendor. By combining these data sets, senior management can see how (or if) wellness program engagement helps the company achieve fewer manufacturing errors, lower employee turnover rates, or achieve other business goals. These insights can help keep senior executives bullish on the company's wellness and fitness programs, and convince skeptics the programs are worth the effort and expense.

[Related: How HR uses fitness trackers to increase company wellness]

5) Don't overthink baselines 

Companies should avoid getting bogged down when they try to determine baselines for the wellness and fitness program data they want to measure, according to Jennifer Benz, CEO of Benz Communications, which specializes in helping organizations communicate health and wellness programs to employees. (Notable Benz clients include Intuit and Adobe.) "There's already a lot of great baseline data out there, so you don't have to figure out precisely where your organization is to figure out how to measure improvements."

6) Keep it simple

Companies shouldn't get carried away and try to measure too many things, Benz said. "Most successful organizations find a couple of metrics to track that are key to their overall business environment," she said. Wellness programs can often have a "halo effect," as well, giving employees a better sense of their health, according to Benz, which is "something you may not be able to measure, but will be able to see and hear among people in your organization."

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