Employee Wellness and Wearables: Amazon Inspired Thoughts

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Employee wellness and wearables are hot. Not necessarily in a good way though. In February for example, a lot has been written about Amazon’s idea for employee-tracking wristbands and the concerns this raises. Although the idea isn’t implemented yet and aimed at employee productivity rather than wellness, it made me wonder about the combination of employee wellness and wearables. Is it a Friend or Foe?    

Wearables and why we like ‘em – or not

Personally, I’m a big fan of my Fitbit. I’m one of those nerds who like to get their 10 000 steps done and the fact that it vibrates every hour is a good reminder to tear myself away from my laptop.

The thing is though, I chose to get that Fitbit. It wasn’t part of a deal I made with my employer, let alone a deal-breaker. And while my data go to Fitbit (something I’m not entirely comfortable with, to be honest) they’re not going to the organization I work for.

Of course, employee wearables do offer some benefits for both employees and employers:

Happier & Healthier staff

A pedometer, for instance, perhaps combined with a company step – and exercise challenge can be a fun way to get employees moving. Not only is that good for their physical condition it also boosts team morale which means people are happier at work. 

Related: The Benefits of a Wellness Program

Prevention

Depending on the data collected by the wearable, companies could be able to prevent certain things from happening. Think of a staff member that sits behind his or her desk for ten straight hours for example. In the long run, this isn’t good for their back, eyes, neck, you name it.

A simple reminder from their wearable telling them to get up and walk around a little could prevent them from getting serious health issues further down the line.

The tricky part here, of course, is whether or not the employer is allowed to intervene. And if so, to what extent.

Is it ok for an employer to ask their employees to physically get up from their desk? Or is that pushing things too far? And what about an email reminder if the wearable data shows the employer that the employee isn’t changing his routine?

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Now, this is an important discussion.

On the one hand, it’s both in the employee’s as well as the employer’s interest that the employee stays healthy. On the other hand, however, you could argue that a person’s physical condition is their responsibility and theirs only. In other words: employers should mind their own business.

The only thing is, in a way, employees are an employer’s business.

Employee Wellness and Wearables: Amazon Inspired Thoughts


Minority Report

It’s easy to see how there’s both a common as well a conflicting interest here. Especially when you look at it from a business perspective. An employer who knows that it’s only a matter of time before his desk-hugging employees will be at home with a health issue can quickly do the math.

From an employer’s perspective, it’s tempting to replace the non-complying employee with someone who is willing to conform to the company’s wellness program.

This brings us to the core of the employee data theme in general and wearables in particular: how far are employers allowed to go?

I cannot help but think of Minority Report-like situations where employers – if allowed to use employee wearable data as they seem fit – start to fire staff because they may fall ill or become less productive in the future.

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Friend not Foe

Employee wellness and wearables should be about exactly that: the wellness of employees. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to see how things can turn around.

So, if employee wearables are part of an organization’s wellness program that’s great, as long as they’re optional. This means every employee gets to choose for themselves whether or not they want to wear one and if they choose not to, this should in no way penalize them.

Organizations could, for example, write a company data manifesto in which they commit themselves to only use employee data for the benefit of their staff. 

Such a commitment – perhaps materialized in a written agreement between employer and employee – could work both ways. Employees would be more likely to allow their employers to collect their data and employers would have an ‘obligation’ to use this data correctly. 

I know there’s a lot more that can and should be said about this topic – whether it’s with regard to Amazon or other companies thinking of implementing employee wearables – and I’m sure it will, but for now, I’ll leave it at this. Amen.

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