The HR implications of workplace wearables

Written by
Hugh Hitchcock

25 Nov 2015

25 Nov 2015 • by Hugh Hitchcock

A fast growing sector

Research by business software firm Ipswitch last year revealed that more than three quarters of European businesses did not have a policy in place for managing the impact of wearable technology on the workplace.

But with the sector set to grow at an astonishing pace over the next five years – an incredible 245 million devices are expected to ship in 2019 – HR professionals should start to consider the potential impact on their workforce now.

Fitness-related devices such as Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike trackers are driving much of the sector’s growth, and an increasing number of employers are offering them to their employees.

In fact, estimates from ABI Research suggest more than 13 million wearable activity-tracking devices will be integrated into employee wellness programs by 2018. Fitbit is adding corporate customers to its roster at a rapid pace, signing up Barclays, and BMC Software just last month.

Some of Fitbit’s customers are selling the devices to staff at discounted rates, but others are buying in bulk to distribute to their employees directly. The advantages of providing fitness trackers to employees are clear; encouraging staff to measure their physical activity can play a role in helping them become more active. 

Wearable technologies have been also found to boost employee productivity by 8.5 per cent, according to experts from Goldsmiths, University of London, and to increase job satisfaction by 3.5 per cent, according to research from Human Cloud At Work (HCAW).

Encouraged by these findings some major employers, including Tesco, BT, Amazon and a number of NHS trusts, are now asking staff to wear trackers. 

Health insurance companies are also encouraging corporate policyholders to ask staff to wear them to reduce their premiums. 

Work place policies

However, privacy campaigners are concerned that the rise of wearable tech could lead to a new kind of ‘big brother’ behaviour by employers.

In a recent poll by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), more than 40 per cent of employees said they didn’t trust their employer not to use the data collected by their devices against them in some way.

Firstly, it is important to note you can’t force workers to wear trackers. Unless a requirement to wear them is written into an employment contract, employees are within their rights to refuse to wear them. Also, even if written into a contract, there is no obligation to wear these devices outside work hours. 

When it comes to ownership of the data generated by wearable tech, this depends on the employment contract. Currently, we only have the example of company mobile phones and laptops to set a precedent over ‘company-owned’ personal data. To comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, companies must clearly state how they will use gathered data and ensure there are robust security measures in place to protect it.

For firms who decide to introduce tracker technology, as part of a wellbeing programme for example, the key to securing buy-in is clear and early communication with staff. To win trust we recommend if you are gathering and analysing data, you do so anonymously and look at whole-workforce trends and improvements rather than individual performance.

Remember that employees have every right to ask what you will do with the data before they make a decision about whether to strap up and step out, so be prepared to reassure them. And be sure that you have a comprehensive wearable tech policy in place that is up-to-date and fit for purpose.

Health and safety

There are also health and safety issues to consider. After all, employees could be wearing these devices in the workplace day-in, day-out for eight or more hours at a time. US science safety company Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has been investigating the potential long-term implications of wearable tech. So far UL has looked at issues around heat and light – whether devices worn close to the skin are emitting safe temperatures and whether the augmented reality displays of smart glasses and similar devices could cause ling term optical damage – but the list of concerns is likely grow as new products enter the marketplace.

Companies might want to consider how they address these issues before they become more serious problems down the line. For example, do you draft a new H&S policy suggesting or mandating regular ‘wearable tech breaks’ in the same way you mandate computer screen breaks?

Be prepared

Remember that however legitimate your reasons for offering wearable tech to your staff, they are within their rights to refuse, or to ask what you will do with the data before they make a decision about whether to strap up and step out. Be sure you’re prepared for any questions, and have taken all the necessary steps to comply with the employment and data protection law governing this emerging area.