Wednesday 22 May 2019 11:36 am

Employers want to use wearable tech to track the health, sleep, fitness and productivity of the office

If you've woken up and checked your watch for last night’s sleep data, you’re not alone. In the UK, more than five million wearables (such as Fitbits and step counters) are now part of individuals’ everyday lives – 1.96m were sold in 2017 alone.

So it’s only natural for employers to be interested in the power of wearables as well. With workplace absence now more likely to be caused by stress, anxiety, or lack of proper sleep than traditional musculoskeletal problems, devices that can aggregate and then determine the overall health (and potential health risks) of an organisation provide powerful data points.

On one level, this degree of monitoring and guidance is what employees say they want. A study by Capital Employee Benefits found that 76 per cent of staff would welcome financial wellness advice from their employer.

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But there are understandable concerns about how data may be used. After all, it’s not uncommon for individuals with weight problems to suffer conscious or unconscious discrimination in the workplace, and privacy campaigners worry about the potential for fitness or health data to be shared and misused by employers.

To an extent, this is already happening in the US, where employers are linking workplace benefits to data from wearables. At insurer Aetna, for instance, employees can boost their bonuses if their sleep tracker data shows that they attain the right amount of rest each night over a certain period. Other employers are linking rewards with physical exercise.

By giving away a little bit of data, employees can enjoy several benefits – for instance, an employer’s health screening may identify health risks that they can act on.

So should wearables be seen more as a blessing than a curse? Wouldn’t employees value a text alert telling them that they haven’t got up and walked around for more than a few hours?

As wearables improve in functionality – such as by measuring temperature and heart rate to identify stress – the ability to spot symptoms of fatigue should theoretically be embraced.

The answer, of course, is proper communication. Explaining the benefits of wearables (and avoiding any ethical lines in the sand) is crucial – even if it also involves spelling out the corporate benefits. For example, employers could negotiate lower health insurance costs if they can prove that staff are healthier year on year and therefore less likely to claim.

For some employees, wearable technology is already compulsory, such as lone workers, or those in dangerous occupations where location-based monitoring is needed to ensure safety.

And research indicates that newer entrants to the workplace will be far more open about technology, so long as it serves them a purpose too – 75 per cent of millennials report being comfortable with biometric technology, for example. In this sense, attitudes should gradually change.

But employers shouldn’t get complacent that a wearable will be automatically accepted. The next generation of products are even more advanced, and may require even more effort to get staff on side.

Read more: Wearables at work: Three ways businesses can avoid Big Brother syndrome

These include sociometric badges capable of measuring the amount of face-to-face interaction staff have, as well as their physical proximity to other people. Vocal pitch changes can be measured and recorded to analyse the “social affinity” among teams.

The topic of wearables won’t go away, and it will be a key discussion area at this summer’s inaugural Festival of Work hosted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) on 12-13 June at Olympia London. This event will celebrate people in the office and debate the future of work.

While a positive employee reaction to wearables isn’t guaranteed, what’s certain is that more employers will want to use them. They just need to work out how to tell staff why.

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