• So many steps, so little time. (AAP)Source: AAP
Corporate employee wellness programs are as commonplace these days as office gossip. But, in what looks set to become a growing trend, many organisations are now upping the ante of these programs by introducing wearable devices.
Jo Hartley

6 Jul 2016 - 1:51 PM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2016 - 2:02 PM

According to research company, Gartner, around 2000 companies worldwide offered their staff fitness trackers in 2013. 

This figure rose to 10,000 in 2014, and the firm predicts that by 2016 most companies with more than 500 employees will do the same. 

America is already leading the way with this trend.  Big oil giant, BP, provided 24,500 Fitbit fitness trackers to the staff of its North American business in 2015.  

And we all know that, as a country, we’re never far to follow in their footsteps. 

In fact, according to the 2015 Australian Bupa health survey, digital health platforms, including wellness portals, mobiles and telehealth programs are all expected to increase in workplaces during 2016.

And it’s easy to understand why.  

Research has found that engaging employees in wellness programs increases both personal health and productivity, and wearable fitness tracking devices seems to only exacerbate this.  

Studies by Fitbit showed that engagement in general wellness programs increases anywhere from 20 to 80 per cent with a Fitbit program. 

Is it really about the employee’s wellness or the employer’s bottom line?  

Similarly, a 2014 study led by Dr Chris Brauer from the University of London found that people using wearable technology were 8.5 per cent more productive.  They also experienced an increase in job satisfaction by up to 3.5 per cent.

But is there a darker side to all this employee wellness tracking?

Is it really about the employee’s wellness or the employer’s bottom line?  And is the pressure to be fit and well actually responsible for making some of us feel quite the opposite?

Accredited practising dietician, Caitlin Rabel, has many concerns when it comes to corporate wellness tracking devices and doesn’t believe they’re always in the best interest of employees. 

“While I’d really like to believe that employers are doing this out of the goodness of their heart, I think that’s unrealistic,” she says.

“The bottom line is they’re a business and need to make money. If they can do that at the same time as improving the health and happiness of their employees; why wouldn't they?”

Rabel sees many disadvantages to these employee programs.  She sites increased stress, taking ‘work’ home and pressure to meet unrealistic step or kilojoule goals as just a few.

“Often these trackers mean that people push their bodies further "to reach their step goal".  This can result in many people overdoing it and sustaining injuries, which result in pain and frustration,” she says.

Rabel also believes that for many employees these programs may feel like an invasion on their privacy.

“Using different types of trackers can result in parts of employees’ private lives becoming less private, especially if the employer runs a competition which reveals everybody’s results.”

Subsequently, this may result in stress, which can have a negative impact on both physical and mental health.  

And it’s employees’ mental health that Rabel is most concerned about.

“These sorts of competitions increase the competitive and comparative nature of the workplace,” she says. “But comparing activity levels to colleagues who may have different body types and lifestyles to you can result in disappointment or discouragement.”

I think the increase in awareness and focus on health and wellness is great, but I don't think using "wellness trackers" alone is the way to go.

In some instances Rabel notes that these types of trackers can even lead to disordered eating and obsessive exercising.

“I think the increase in awareness and focus on health and wellness is great, but I don't think using "wellness trackers" alone is the way to go,” she says.

“I think a more holistic program that incorporates presentations about health and wellness, as well as relevant workplace policies are more likely to actually make an impact on the overall health of employees.”

It’s something that Elizabeth Marchant, CEO of Recognition PR, agrees with.  By implementing a company wellness program that incorporates expert presentations and information, Fitbits and even financial health advice, her company has benefitted in many ways. 

“Our ‘Get Healthy at Work’ program, which includes Fitbits, has benefited our employees by giving the team a tangible and every day reminder to incorporate movement into their days,” she says.  

“It's also a reminder that we support their lifestyles and encourage them to be healthy and to take time to look after themselves.”

Marchant notes that while some of team love the activity side of the Fitbits, others love the food tracking or sleep tracking.   

She also says that regular competitions and a team leader board have helped create healthy competition and encouraged individuals to challenge themselves.

“Awareness of health and lifestyle on one level absolutely leads to awareness of how you can improve your life generally and we try to make sure our team gets a holistic view,” says Marchant.

“Our team feedback has been overwhelmingly positive about our Fitbits, and the Get Healthy at Work program. The team feel supported and cared for and know that we invest in them personally and professionally. “

But it’s not just the health of employees that’s of concern when it comes to using wellness trackers.  It’s the health of the company culture too.

Resentment leads to splitting and poor company culture, and this can’t be changed by forcing employees to have a good time.

Consultant psychologist, Robert Luzza, says that if wellness becomes an unhealthy competition or if generosity is abused, then both employers and employees may foster resentment.

“Resentment leads to splitting and poor company culture, and this can’t be changed by forcing employees to have a good time,” he says.

Luzza notes that a similar thing can happen when employees don’t feel that employers are honestly invested in their happiness. 

“These programs will feel fake, and anything fake leads to distrust and a level of dishonesty within the culture.”

“Any workplace with a poor culture has an affect on an employee’s emotional wellbeing,” he says.  “We spend the majority of our week at work so, if we don’t feel appreciated or valued there, it will lead to negative feelings and reduced performance.”

Only time will tell if fitness tracking and Fitbits will become the norm in organizations across the country.  But for now, all we know is that for some it appears to be a step in the right direction but for others it might still be a step too far.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @hartley_jo

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