14 ways to improve corporate wellness programs with wearables


James A. Martin

October 9, 2015

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. 

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.

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.

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.”

Tips for enhanced communication, outreach for fitness programs

7) No silver bullet 

There is no single communications channel that’s best for raising employee awareness and engagement, according to Benz. So it’s best to embrace multiple channels and formats. Most employees have preferred ways of receiving information, such as viewing online video or reading infographics and email, and the way to reach the largest audience is by using more communication methods.

Ultimately, the goal is “to change wellness behavior, not communications behavior,” Boehm said. 

Bank of America uses “every form of communications possible” to detail updates, features and benefits related to its wellness program and health challenges, according to Huffman, including the company Intranet, email, “snail mail” sent to employee homes, and team meetings. Before opening each day, Bank of America branches also have “team huddles,” which are ideal for communicating information about company wellness programs.

8) Share employees’ positive experiences

Several speakers at the San Francisco Fitbit conference said sharing testimonials is an excellent way to engage employees in wellness programs or fitness challenges. 

“People love to read stories about their colleagues,” Benz said. For example, an “average Joe” who was a smoker for 20 years successfully completed a cessation program offered by one of Benz’s corporate clients. The company highlighted “Joe’s” accomplishment in one of its employee newsletters, and nearly 100 fellow employees emailed him to say the story inspired them to join the program, Benz said. Joe also told his company benefits manager that, after all the recognition he received for quitting, he “definitely can’t start smoking again.”

Boehm added that organizations should find testimonials from all levels of the company and “keep putting them out there.” Employees featured in testimonials can be a wellness program’s “best advocates.”

9) Focus over generality in communications

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to effective communication, Boehm said. “The more tailored your communications are (to individual interests), the more engagement you’ll get.” You’re trying to get people to change their behavior, she said. But if your approach is too broad or general, employees might think the message doesn’t apply to them.

10) Be timely and proactive

Organizations’ communications should be timely and relevant whenever possible, according to Benz. She suggests following the “TaskRabbit model” by striving to make communications “helpful for others” and giving employees information they can act on. For example, if an employee needs an MRI, a company might provide information on affordable facilities that perform the test before the employee makes an appointment. 

11) It’s not all about the Benjamins

It’s never a good idea to depend solely on financial incentives to motivate employees. Many employers choose to increase financial incentives to motivate staff health improvement, but the majority of workers don’t take full advantage of the incentives, according LuAnn Heinen, vice president, National Business Group on Health (NBGH).

In 2015, 79 percent of employers will offer monetary health incentives, up from 63 percent five years earlier, according to a 2015 NBGH and Fidelity Investments survey, which Heinen cited. The same survey also found the average maximum incentive amount rose to $693 this year compared to $594 in 2014, while only 47 percent of employees earn the full incentive amount, and 26 percent earn just a portion of the total.

Though important, financial incentives, as well as future health rewards don’t always motivate sustainable participation in wellness challenges and fitness programs, Heinen said. The promise of fun, overall better quality of life, and higher energy levels are often more effective motivators, she said.

12) Help employees help themselves

Creativity can go a long way toward giving employees easy options to care for themselves. For example, mindfulness — the act of “being in the moment” —is gaining popularity in corporate wellness programs, according to Heinen. Pitney Bowes, for example, offers five-minute guided meditation for employees over the phone.

13) More physical activity isn’t always better

The goal of increasing physical activity isn’t always appropriate for all workers. Some workers, such as nurses or employees in packing and shipping departments are always on their feet, so increasing steps isn’t necessarily a wise move, Boehm said. Instead, decreasing steps can make these types or workers more efficient in their jobs and “give them energy to focus on what matters most” at work and at home. 

14) Cheaters never prosper

Organization shouldn’t worry about fitness challenge “cheaters,” or people who manipulate their fitness data. Companies that roll out a Fitbit Wellness program can enable or disable employees from manually logging steps, according to Amy McDonough, vice president and general manager, Fitbit Wellness. However, McDonough says Fitbit has “found that with good communications and transparency about how a program ties to incentives and what data is being shared, the majority of employees will be honest and will keep each other honest.”


This article was written by James A. Martin from CIO and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Comment this article

Great ! Thanks for your subscription !

You will soon receive the first Content Loop Newsletter