Technology & Wearables

Business Attire: Wearable Devices FIT Corporate Wellness Strategies

Get a look at that wrist. Those stylish bracelets worn around the office are making a fashion statement of their own and enabling employers to redefine the meaning of business attire. Clung to arms, clipped to waistbands or wrapped around wrists and ankles, wearable fitness tracking devices are joining the workforce to measure anything from caloric intake and heart beats to sleep patterns and brain activity.

More than a few companies intent on keeping their employee health-related costs down have already - or plan to -- integrated these approaches into office etiquette or, as might be said, their employee dress codes. Some 22 million fitness trackers will be sold this year and as many as 13 million of these gadgets are predicted to become part of corporate wellness strategies by 2018, according to ABI Research.

The idea is to trigger employees to take an active role in their health, but also to let employers and the insurers who offer them coverage to set goals and reward those who move away from the desk and achieve them. Employers have their own incentives besides a healthier and more productive workforce, too.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, companies can takes up to 30 percent off the cost of annual insurance premiums when employee participation is tied to corporate wellness plans. BP bought into the value. The gas and oil giant purchased 25,000 fitness trackers to disperse to employees who are challenged to measure the number of steps they take each day.

Employees who log 1 million steps earn half of the 1,000 points needed each year to qualify for lower co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. More than 23,000 employees and their eligible dependents volunteered for the program last year including Cory Slagle, a 260-pound middle-school administrator and the husband of Kristi, who works at BP.

Slagle walked more than the 1 million needed steps, the proof being his wireless wearable device that monitored his movements and the 70 pounds and 10 pant sizes he subsequently shed."I can see my toes," Slagle told Bloomberg, a dozen months after trading in burgers for salads and a fitness device.

Kristi Slagle is thrilled that her 51-year-old husband also lowered his once-high blood pressure and cholesterol, which are now at normal levels and less at-risk to BP for the cost of related heart or medical troubles. BP, which partnered with StayWell to administer the program, is even more elated that company healthcare costs were cut by almost 9 percent among participants and 4 percent overall.

Office Etiquette

Missed work days attributed to obesity cost the nation an estimated $8.65 billion annually. No wonder then employers like Autodesk, Georgia Pacific, GNC and Net/App are stepping in line and applying wearable devices, mobile apps and employee risk assessments to track and lower costs.

Wearables can also be of benefit by linking participants to a larger online community to meet the wellness needs of a diverse, geographically dispersed workforce. Wearables do not require employees to be near computers to upload data. Ask employees of the State of Colorado, who access a unified platform to upload personal health results and connect to fitness regimens and educational resources on smoking cessation, diabetes, stress, and nutrition.

The end result, said Kathy Nesbitt, executive director of the state's department of personnel and administration, is lower healthcare costs in some areas. Fitness trackers -- 1 in 10 Americans above the age of 18 own some sort of device -- are no longer just for personal use. The key is to get employees to keep using their devices.

That remains in the hands of the employers and insurers. At Autodesk, fitness devices have been offered to employees since 2011. Once employees began charting steps, the devices sparked some friendly competition, prompting some staff to park further away from the office, or take the long way to meetings or breaks.

Fitness trackers are part of the corporate culture at Buffer. The San Francisco-based social media startup gives each new employee a Jawbone Up wristband. Employees are encouraged to track and share their data and serve as cheerleaders for each other.

Carolyn Kopprasch, the chief happiness officer in charge of keeping employee spirits up at Buffer, said the fitness trackers can provide not only information on caffeine intake, but support the company's culture of self-improvement as well.

Steps Forward

Companies are not yet in the business of evaluating job performance based on fitness data. However, someday, when data might be more carefully collected and analyzed, they could. Until then, the full impact of activity trackers will be hard to pinpoint outside of sick days, productivity and enhanced work atmosphere. But, that day may be coming.

Jawbone, Samsung Electronics and other technology companies that manufacture wearable fitness devices believe their products will live up to their hype as long as employers keep encouraging their use.

From the recent emergence of smart t-shirts and fitness trackers worn on the head, the novelty does not appear to be wearing off anytime soon. Someday, employers might conceivably apply collected data to help train health workers, manage chronic disease and monitor critical medical barometers to proactively address the medical conditions of their employees. Healthcare providers, in turn, could monitor wearable devices and advise employees who are participating in corporate wellness programs.

Those days, on both accounts, won't come until questions surrounding privacy are ironed out. In the meantime, health-conscious consumers will continue to embrace fitness devices, driven by intuitive appeal and their lower prices, to make the most of their activity levels.

That is until smart watches, predicted to be the next gadget to emerge and compete for the aesthetically minded marketplace, hits the streets. When Apple releases the Apple Watch sometime in the spring, Buzzfeed hopes to be in position to see what this long-awaited wearable device can do.

The internet news and media company, with more than $100 million in revenue this year, plans to purchase the latest in health and fitness companions for its 700-plus employee pool if certain targeted business goals are met.

The thought is that as long as the technology evolves and moves forward - to provide more accurate, more adaptable and more aesthetically pleasing devices - both employers and employees will take a step in that direction.

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