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4 guidelines for using employee data to boost wellness and company culture

How to blend company culture with wellness programs—from a man with serious connections.

22 July 2016

By Calvin Hennick, contributing writer

Sparked by reforms in the Affordable Care Act, companies are increasingly launching fitness and wellness programs—and a popular avenue is to give employees access to fitness technology tools to help them track such health metrics as exercise and sleep. Several companies, including biotech firm Amgen Inc., made headlines earlier this year when they offered employees the chance to purchase an Apple Watch for $25 if they used the device to meet monthly fitness goals, and fitness technology company Fitbit works with enterprises like Adobe, NetApp, and BP on their employee health programs. HPE partners with ShapeUp, a leading global provider of social networking and incentives-based employee wellness solutions.

Studies of corporate wellness programs have linked them to higher employee satisfaction, and found positive ROI. But such programs have also raised privacy concerns: data mining and worker information confidentiality have both been major red flags as IoT wearables, biometric exams, and online health surveys become more prominent in the workplace, Dinah Wisenberg Brin said in an article for the Society for Human Resource Management.

While programs that utilize wearables can create camaraderie and encourage healthy habits, they can also be toxic to company culture if they're implemented carelessly, says Chris Dancy, a connectivity expert who has earned the moniker "most connected human" for his use of sensors to track and analyze practically all aspects of his life. Dancy predicts that everything we do at work will be quantified within a decade, and he cautions that it's crucial to get these tracking programs right as they're being established—because it's much harder to change things once they've become, for better or worse, the norm.

"We don't get a do-over," he says. Which is why he offers four guidelines for putting employee data to good use, in a way that can improve workers' fitness and productivity, as well as the overall company culture.

1. Treat participants like people, not systems

We're talking about lives—we're not talking about machines. People are not optimizable.


While healthier employees are generally more productive employees, Dancy warns against using health data to merely squeeze more work out of tired and stressed workers. "I see a lot of organizations treating employees like batteries," he says. "We're talking about lives—we're not talking about machines. People are not optimizable."

Opt-in programs that utilize fitness technology to offer employees friendly tips will create a more positive culture than mandatory programs that use data punitively, Dancy says. For example, devices might give employees gentle reminders to stand up and move around when they've been sitting for long periods, or upload to their devices a version of the cafeteria menu that fits with workers' nutritional plans.

2. Integrate with other applications

If employees aren't getting their recommended number of steps in each day, Dancy says, it may turn out that they're simply stuck in unproductive meetings or buried under hundreds of emails. By looking at the whole picture, managers might decide that their employees would be happier, healthier, and more productive if they could eliminate some of these tasks. Or the organization might use health and workflow data to detect and prevent employee burnout. "If you have access to calendar and email load, and you've noticed that an employee's work has tripled, that's a great time for someone from HR to come in and say, 'Let's talk about how we can move some of this work around,'" Dancy says.

3. Make programs cooperative, not competitive

Dancy recommends making employee health data anonymous. In organizations where that information is made public, employees often "weaponize" it and use it against each other. In fact, employees sometimes use health data to promote unhealthy behavior. "People can see how many hours their coworkers are sleeping, and they're all bragging about who got the least amount of sleep, as though that's a badge of honor," he says.

While a spirit of friendly competition has long motivated employee participation in wellness programs—from 5K races to weight-loss contests—Dancy cautions against pitting employees against one another. "Gamification turns into shame-ification," he says.

4. Seek employee input

Rather than giving top-down directives, Dancy says companies should allow employees to set their own fitness goals. "That allows someone to understand and quantify their own life or their own behavior."

Conversations with employees might uncover new ways that they can use wearables to get healthier and decrease stress. For example, Dancy says, one worker might want to incorporate his wife and kids into his healthy lifestyle changes, while another might gain peace of mind by tracking the wellness of her elderly parents.

"Just buying a [wellness] program isn't enough," Dancy adds. "You have to educate your people on what the programs are going to do for them. This is a giant opportunity. In ten years, everything we do at work will be quantified. In ten years, we won't get a choice. Now is the time to really focus on how to compassionately deploy these programs in a way that helps all of us to be healthier."

Read more insights on IT strategy and leadership at HPE Business Insights.

Calvin Hennick is a business and technology writer based in Boston and an adjunct instructor at University of Massachusetts Boston.


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