7 minutes

Revolutionizing Employee Health: The Pros and Cons of Wearables and Digital Tools in Workplace Wellbeing

Wearables and digital tools have the potential to revolutionise workplace wellbeing, but their effectiveness depends on several factors. For example, employers must consider selection bias (only the most interested signing up), employee comfort with data sharing, privacy concerns, and potential drawbacks. By addressing these issues, organisations can harness the potential of these technologies for enhancing employee wellbeing.

The topic of how to improve employee wellbeing has been gaining increasing attention in recent years. It’s not surprising:

  • 89% of employees whose wellbeing is rated as ‘excellent’ are satisfied with their job.
  • Only 44% of employees with poor wellbeing would say the same.
  • 71% of employees feel that companies need to play a greater role in their overall welfare, wellbeing & happiness.
  • 68% of employees and 81% of the C-suite say improving their well-being is more important than advancing their careers.
  • 40% of people are unhappy at work and are considering leaving their job in the near future.
  • 26% suggested that lack of support for health and wellbeing is among their top reasons for quitting.
  • 60% of employees said that they would leave their current job for a new employer that offered better support for personal wellbeing, even if they were paid less.

Understandably, many employers are turning to digital technologies to support and improve wellbeing based on the promises of convenience, ease of use and 24/7 accessibility. It also helps that 60% of households already own a wearable (in the US), and many people use wearable devices and apps to support their health and wellbeing.

  • 87% of surveyed wearable owners use them to track health metrics such as heart rate, workout duration, and sleep quality.
  • 39% report using their devices to monitor calories and nutrition.
  • 47% say they share the health data gathered by their wearables with their healthcare providers.

There are many potential upsides to using wearables and digital tools for workplace wellbeing, but that’s not the whole story. In this blog we’ll explore:

  • Whether digital workplace wellbeing solutions even work.
  • The downsides of providing people with wellbeing data.
  • Whether employees are comfortable with sharing their data.
  • Mistakes to avoid when using wearables in workplace wellbeing


Do digital wellbeing solutions even work?

According to recent surveys, digital wellness solutions are becoming increasingly common in workplace wellbeing. Around 68% of global employers are investing in digital health solutions. However, while some evidence indicates that digital-only interventions positively impact health-related outcomes in the workplace, their success seems to depend on several factors. For example, according to a scoping review of digital workplace wellness interventions, digital health interventions are potentially effective and feasible for improving employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. However, the level of distress of the employees plays a role. A systematic review of randomised controlled trials found that tailored digital interventions did not reduce anxiety or depression in the general working population, but they significantly reduced depression and anxiety in employees with higher levels of psychological distress. Consequently, it’s important to consider that a digital intervention may benefit people who are most in need, but this may not show up as an organisation-level change.

Also, an important yet often overlooked limitation is treatment selection bias. For example, an often-cited study evaluated a digital mindfulness app in two UK organisations. The researchers observed positive results for various subjective wellbeing measures and biomarkers. However, all of the participants in the study self-selected by responding to an email promoting the initiative, with randomisation occurring after recruitment. Only 13% of workers participated across both sites. Consequently, the people who are most interested and open to digital wellbeing solutions may benefit the most, while the majority of the employee population is unaffected. To engage a wider audience, it’s crucial to consider this bias and explore ways to make digital wellness interventions appealing to all employees.


Why we must use data in workplace wellbeing

One of the challenges is that, while digital wellbeing solutions are far from perfect, a combination of apps and wearables can often provide one of the most practical methods for gathering data to answer the question of whether a wellbeing strategy is working. The lack of data from workplace wellbeing programs is impairing the maturation of the entire sector. Without measurement, it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of wellbeing initiatives or identify areas for improvement. Also, the lack of data means that many strategies are stuck in a reactive mode, treating symptoms rather than addressing the root causes of poor employee wellbeing. To gain a comprehensive understanding of employee wellbeing, we must combine self-report and observed data. Wearables and digital biomarker apps can be used to collect physiological data via a range of different methods, such as heart rate, skin temperature, and electrodermal activity. Additionally, employees can use their smartphones to self-report their mood or record their voice as a means to gauge their emotional state. By combining these approaches, employers can gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of employee wellbeing.


The downsides of wellbeing data

In addition to considering the risks and benefits of sharing data with employers (which we will address later in this blog), we also need to consider the potential down-sides of providing employees with data from wearable devices and digital wellness tools. Seven in 10 wearable owners say their fitness and health have improved with the help of wearable devices and apps. However, not all that glitters is gold. Recent research sheds light on potential drawbacks:

  • Datafication: Users may feel controlled by numbers, losing touch with their intuition.
  • Economisation: Wearables can lead to stress & negative self-appraisal when goals aren’t met.
  • Individualisation: Relying on external motivation might undermine personal drive.

So, what can we do? The answer is not to throw out devices. Instead, future systems could:

  • Leverage AI/ML to personalise goals & feedback based on users’ unique needs.
  • Appropriately time notifications to foster self-awareness & intrinsic motivation.
  • Adapt user interfaces & offer customisable data tracking & presentation.

To harness wearables’ potential for enhancing employee wellbeing, organisations must carefully weigh the benefits and challenges before implementing these tools in the workplace. Employers must also prioritise data privacy, employee comfort and ensure usefulness.

Are employees comfortable sharing their digital wellbeing data?

Some reports indicate that 30% of employers provide a dedicated health/wellbeing app for their employees. These apps and the wearable devices that can accompany them are generating increasing amounts of highly personal data, so it is critical to understand employee comfort levels regarding data sharing. It can be helpful to consider wearable devices as part of a broader group of digital wellbeing initiatives, each of which generate different forms of data.

It can be helpful to consider wearable devices as part of a broader group of digital wellbeing initiatives, each of which generate different forms of data.

  1. Wearables & Digital Biomarker Apps: Collecting physiological data through smartphones, smartwatches, or other wearables, helping employees monitor aspects of their wellbeing (e.g. sleep, recovery, stress). Employers use anonymised aggregate data to identify workplace pain points and provide tailored support.
  1. Prevention & Treatment Solutions: Digitally delivered interventions designed to improve wellbeing (e.g. content libraries, chatbots, remote therapy). These solutions may cover many aspects of wellbeing, such as sleep, nutrition, and mental health. Employers aim to use usage data, and potentially link this with outcomes derived from self-report and wearables to measure efficacy and provide a level of personalised support.
  1. Analytic Tools: Used alongside remote data collection from wearables and other systems. These tools can help individuals identify when to rest or alert leaders to team stress levels, for example. Employers can use these data to measure workforce wellbeing, link findings to productivity, and offer support services for at-risk employees.

While these aims are laudable, the question of whether employees are happy to share the data which these tools generate is complex. A survey by AXA PPP Health Tech & You found that 57% of British workers would be open to having a wearable fitness device paid for by their employer that was used to monitor their activity during working hours. However, this does not necessarily mean that employees are happy to share all of their wearable data with their employers.

While some employees may be comfortable with the collection of personal health data to promote individual wellness or prevent injury on the job, others may be concerned about the use of wearable devices to collect data linked to job performance, productivity, and professional satisfaction.

Power dynamics in data collection

One study found that most respondents were uncomfortable with their wearable data being used to make predictions about them. The power dynamics between employee and employer may be at play, as well as the powerlessness that users might feel to influence what is predicted about them based on their data. Whatever the case, employers must consider privacy concerns and ensure that employees are comfortable with the data being collected and how it is used. Employers evaluating the possible use of wearable technology should consider:

  • What data is collected by the device or service.
  • Where the data is stored.
  • How long the data is maintained.

Employers should also obtain and share information regarding the method by which the technology will be employed, the type of information that will be collected, how the data will be used, and who will have access to it. It seems that many employees would happily participate in digital wellbeing initiatives if employers could address these issues. For example, a survey of 1,000 workers in the UK by Profusion, a data science firm, suggested that most employees are comfortable with HR teams collecting data and using more advanced analytics. However, 81% said that the data must be made available so that they challenge interpretations.


While wearables and digital wellness interventions have the potential to increase the health and happiness of employees, along with boosting productivity and overall output, organisations need to be mindful of employee privacy and data protection concerns, establish rigorous policies to protect employee data and ensure that employees are comfortable with the collection and use of wearable data.



Mistakes to avoid when using wearables in workplace wellbeing

Even if these issues are tackled, all too often, wearable devices end up in a desk drawer after a few weeks. In addition to tackling concerns about privacy, a recent systematic review identified several common mistakes that organisations make when they try to implement wearable health technology in the workplace. I’ve summarised the findings and potential solutions in this blog.

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