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Employers turn to wearable technology to help staff manage work-life balance

Companies are realising that there are sound business reasons for ensuring their employees get enough sleep and exercise, so they are turning to wearable technology to help their staff stay healthy, despite the pressures of work

Employers have started thinking about how they can use technology to help their employees stay healthy, with some offering wearable devices to help staff meet personal health goals, including daily step counts and better sleep habits.

Investing in technology to improve staff well-being makes business sense. It can improve morale and productivity of employees and reduce staff turnover, at a time when recruiting skilled employees is increasingly challenging. For some employers, it is simply the right thing to do.

The future of work

Jason Averbook, CEO and co-founder of the future-of-work consultancy Leapgen, says the blurring between home and work life has not yet affected everyone, but it is something employers are having to think about.

“All those other aspects of people’s lives, that once happened outside of work, are now in the frame for employers. Fitness and lifestyle, personal well-being and personal goals like daily step targets and quantity and quality of sleep – it’s increasingly all blending in.” 

Averbook and others argue that human resource (HR) departments are now looking at how technology can help employees become more engaged in their work.                                                                                                 

“It’s a complex picture, partly because today’s devices can touch on everything individuals do. All those aspects of their personal lives that individuals can track with their phones are now fair game for HR, whether that’s fitness-tracking wearables or mindfulness apps or sleep monitoring or whatever. There’s a way still to travel here, as it’s a fragmented space with no stand-out technology, but change is coming.”

BBVA’s healthy workforce initiative

Spanish-owned US banking group BBVA Compass is one company that is investing in technology to improve the well-being of its employees.

The bank, which has about 700 branches and 11,000 staff, has partnered with its health insurer to launch an employee wellness programme in partnership with lifestyle-tech business Virgin Pulse.

BBVA Compass issues participating staff with a wearable fitness-tracking device to monitor their physical activity. About three-quarters of staff have enrolled on the scheme, which is free to join and offers financial incentives for taking regular exercise.

Employees are taking an average of more than 9,200 steps per day and groups of employees regularly walk in their local parks at lunchtime and make a point of taking the stairs – even in one building that has 19 floors – rather than using a lift.

BBVA collaborates with other organisations with similar well-being programmes. This includes inter-organisational fitness challenges – fun competitions in the park between participating companies – and quarterly inter-company meetings to discuss and brainstorm well-being best practices. 

Since launching the wellness programme, the bank has expanded the project, which is now known as Wellthy for Life, to include nutrition and sleep support alongside personal health coaching, mindfulness training, maternity support and programmes to help staff quit smoking.

Privacy and ethics

Collecting data from mobile devices raises some ethical and privacy issues. Dai Davis, an IT lawyer with Percy Crow Davis & Co, says companies contemplating collecting wellness data of any sort should consider who will receive the data and obtain permission from the individuals involved.

“Data might be stored in the US, for example, which may not be compatible with the company’s rules for data handling. There are also issues that might arise if health data is collected and an individual’s privacy might be compromised,” he says.

Another important matter to consider is whether the data collected is going to be used to inform some other decision, for example relating to employment or insurance.

“None of this is likely to be an issue in itself, but it is an area that will need careful navigation by a company,” says Davis. 

Following the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, many companies, particularly larger ones, err on the side of caution when it comes to data collection and compliance.

Breaking bad habits

London-headquartered law firm Fieldfisher, which has 22 offices around the world, is making staff well-being a priority. It is evaluating a variety of technologies that may be able to help.

Jane Cozens, who heads up the company’s people and organisational development operation, says there is a pressing need to support staff well-being in the legal sector, because so many firms put pressure on their lawyers to work intensely over long hours.

Smartphones have exacerbated that pressure, she says, by making it harder than ever for individuals to switch off and treat their working and personal lives separately.

“Stress and a lack of sleep takes its toll on anyone, and many lawyers have an innate need for perfectionism, which means many are likely to heap more demands on themselves anyway,” she says.

Cozens believes technology could play a major role in helping staff keep a work-life balance.

“Potentially, it could be used to support different learning styles and to track and encourage positive behaviours. This could provide datastreams we can learn from, too,” she says.

Fieldfisher is contacted “all the time” by providers wanting to demonstrate well-being apps and wearable devices, and is keeping a close eye on developments.

The firm has started with a learning and development programme, called I-Plus, to address the health and well-being of everyone across the firm.

“We want our people to embrace the ‘oxygen-mask principle’,” says Cozens. “On a flight, you are always reminded that if the cabin pressure falls, oxygen masks will be provided, and you should attend to your own needs first and then help others.”

Partners at Fieldfisher are now encouraged to attend to their own well-being and resilience first, while also being conscious of potential problems with fee earners and associates who may be over-reaching themselves with long hours and a lack of sleep, for example.

“Learning about resilience – what it looks like, how you deal with stress – and about optimism and self-confidence is central, but we also include evidence-based sessions on sleep, because sleep solves so much,” she says.

Lack of sleep has a profound impact on performance, mental health and relationships, yet in plenty of law firms, pulling an all-nighter is something to boast about, says Cozens.

“I can think of one associate in a previous firm who was sleeping with her mobile device on her chest so it woke her if a message arrived and she could respond. It’s that kind of thinking and behaviour that we need to work to stop. As a profession, we need to remove that expectation and culture,” she says.

Technologies to ‘reclaim our humanity’

One aspect of wellness that is growing in importance is how organisations can ensure they aren’t only reactive to employees, but also help staff to help themselves so life problems don’t run out of control.

“We need smarter and better technologies with a human-centred focus that allow us to reclaim our humanity while improving our health, productivity and happiness”
Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post

This agenda is at the heart of Thrive Global, set up by Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington who, in a similar vein to Fieldfisher’s project, argues that a good well-being programme is important for all employees, especially those in high-stress environments.

“Right now, too many well-being programmes are focused on harm reduction, working only on the symptoms. But for an organisation to truly thrive, the solutions have to focus on the root causes of stress and burnout, and on whether a culture of burnout is being incentivised,” she says.

This means there has to be buy-in from senior leadership, says Huffington, and technology has a huge role to play.

“What we need are smarter and better technologies with a human-centred focus that allow us to reclaim our humanity while improving our health, productivity and happiness. We know from the science how harmful stress and burnout are for our physical health, our mental health and our productivity. Now it’s time to go from knowing what to do, to actually doing it.”

Swiss pilot holds promise for SAP

HR software supplier SAP SuccessFactors is piloting a well-being programme in Switzerland on its newly minted Work-Life software.

It launched in April 2018 as a way to support business transformation projects by better understanding how engaged employees are and what project teams require to perform effectively.

The programme enables staff members to run health checks and get guidance on actions they can take to improve their health and well-being.

“After four weeks, more than one-third of our roughly 800 employees had used the offer,” says Enrico Palumbo, HR director of SAP Switzerland.

“Employees especially like that they get specific recommendations to do things based on their needs. This, in turn, helps me, as head of HR, to better promote the services and benefits that already exist, which people may not be aware of.”

Work-Life is a cloud-based platform that’s integrated with SAP SuccessFactors cloud HR software. It offers employees access to benefits and resources to help change behaviours and achieve peak performance, as well as information and insights to enable a better work-life balance.

Further up the chain, HR staff and managers get real-time data of what initiatives are working, while the top-tier leadership can gain insights into the stresses on employees, organisational performance indicators and benchmarking to help with strategic planning.

It’s early days, but Palumbo sees three main advantages of the technology: employees can use the technology to trigger actions immediately based on their individual needs; managers can review the engagement levels of their workforce at any time, and check whether they are heading in the right direction; and HR staff can understand the needs of their workforce and take more informed decisions about adding future HR services.

Change is coming

SAP’s well-being pilot is part of a picture where there’s a huge amount happening, but not yet much cohesion and agreement about where well-being technology is heading.

In part, this is because HR cultures are still adapting to changing patterns of employment, and in part because the return on investment isn’t always obvious.

Experts and early adopters all agree that bigger moves are coming, but the next few years hold the prospect of wellness and well-being programmes taking off in ways that are hard to predict.

This was last published in September 2018

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