In February, during one of New England's harshest winters in memory, some employees at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, began deliberately parking further away from their offices.
The private liberal arts college employees started walking more, working out more, and even dancing more. And within two weeks, a few of the most active employees had lost between 4 percent and 5 percent of their body weight, according to Bates College Wellness Program Director Mike Milliken.
What's happening at Bates College is no isolated case. Across the United States, many SMBs, enterprises, educational institutions and other organizations are adding high-tech gadgetry to their employee wellness programs. Fitness trackers, mobile apps and Web-based dashboards let workers count calories and steps, monitor sleep patterns, compete against colleagues and earn prizes.
While employers and employees alike praise these 21st-century corporate wellness programs, some say they raise privacy concerns, and the return on investment can be difficult to quantify.
Fitbit: The New BYOD
Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone UP and similar fitness trackers have exploded in popularity in the last year or so. And they're just getting started. In 2014, 8 million "smart" activity-tracking wristbands are expected to ship, according to research firm Canalys. The company predicts that number will reach 23 million units by 2015 and more than 45 million by 2017.
By 2018, more than 13 million wearable activity-tracking devices will be integrated into employee wellness programs, based on estimates from ABI Research. That's compared to fewer than 200,000 wearable devices used along with corporate wellness plans last year, according to principal analyst Jonathan Collins, as quoted by Mobihealth News.
Employee wellness programs are the norm today. Nearly 80 percent of organizations with more than 1,000 employees and 44 percent of firms with between 50 and 999 employees provide them, according to a 2012 survey by Automatic Data Processing.
With the increased awareness of health risks, the low costs of many wearable trackers, the desire to be more active and healthier, and a growing interest in the "quantified self," it's no wonder many workers are using gadgets to track their physical activities at home and at work.
Officially incorporating such devices into a company's wellness program -- in which Fitbit and its kind have become a new type of BYOD -- seems a no-brainer, especially as employers grapple with rising healthcare premiums. In fact, 35 percent of organizations say employee wellness programs are a "very effective strategy for controlling costs," according to a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust survey.
Benefits: Camaraderie and Cost Savings
Bates College launched its employee fitness program in mid-February. The college partnered with ShapeUp, a social-media platform for employee wellness, and Fitbit, which offers activity trackers to organizations at a group discount to encourage employee exercise.
Thirty-five percent of the college's 700 employees are currently participating in an eight-week team competition (called "Ready, Set, Go") to encourage increased physical activity and weight loss, according to Milliken. Participants receive stickers for 10-cents-per-ounce salad discounts all year at the employee snack bar. Winning team members receive gold-star stickers that get them 50 percent off the price of salads.
"There's been a real buzz about Fitbit and the competition," Milliken says. "It's getting groups of people moving, despite the harsh winter temperatures and storms."
Bates College offered Fitbit Zip devices to employees as an incentive for participating. "When we issued them initially, we were upfront about the fact it wasn't simply a gift for signing up," he adds. "They needed to earn it by using it, and that seems to be driving engagement."
Global cloud-consultancy firm Appirio kicked off its CloudFit program in early 2013. To date, 250 of its 900 employees received wristbands to track their activities, and more than 300 CloudFit participants regularly share workout tips and training schedules via Salesforce Chatter, according to Shannon Daly, Appirio vice president of human resources.
Employees also crowdsourced and distributed a cookbook of healthful recipes. Some Appirio team members are doing marathons and strenuous "Tough Mudders," or muddy obstacle races. As a result, "Appirio has a more tight-knit and connected company culture," Daly says.
In addition, Appirio's healthcare plan provider contributed $20,000 to its CloudFit program, which helps fund the program. The contribution also enabled Appirio to hire a corporate wellness program administrator that provides a virtual training/coaching program for all participants. New health and wellness challenges are posted weekly to the CloudFit Chatter group.
Vista Staffing Solutions
VISTA Staffing Solutions employees shed nearly 800 pounds in the Retrofit online weight-loss program, which began in January 2013, according to a Retrofit spokesperson. Employees use Fitbit trackers and Wi-Fi-enabled bathroom scales. On average, participants lost 12.8 pounds.
VISTA estimates that the exercise and fitness program decreased absenteeism, resulted in a healthier and happier workplace, and is saving the company about $38,035 annually due to decreased medical expenses and increased productivity. VISTA has approximately 200 employees, and 61 staffers participate in the Retrofit program.
Retrofit "saved my life," says VISTA Staffing Solutions Recruiting Manager Michelle Howa. "I gained 55 pounds over the past few years, and while I tried to lose it, I never had success."
Howa says the program gave her access to a behavior coach, a registered dietitian and an exercise physiologist. She says she lost 47 pounds in nine months and incorporated healthier exercise and eating habits into her daily routine.
Killer Infographics implemented an employee fitness program based on the P90X workout in September 2013. Participants went to conference rooms to exercise to a P90X video, says Charlie Holbert, digital marketing director. But momentum soon dissipated because "it forced people out of their daily routines and didn't hold anyone accountable."
The infographics firm rebooted its efforts in January 2014, this time using social media for sharing, accountability and increased engagement. (Killer Infographics has 20 employees. Its fitness program started with 16 participants but now has about half as many members.)
"Being heavy social media users, our team decided to build a program around the concept of sharing and tracking our fitness goals both internally and with followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google+," Holbert says. "Every day, participants would share their progress through these channels with pictures and/or videos of them working out. Not only did this build camaraderie, it also created a system of accountability on a whole new level."
The program's devotees also created KIG90X, "a pseudo reality show" on YouTube that follows a group of contestants vying to win various fitness challenges and "fighting their way toward the 'Ultimate Prize,'" according to Holbert. (He declined to specify what the prize will be.)
Holbert adds that because of the program, "office morale and overall productivity have gone up, and there are a lot less sick days being called in."
Gundersen Health System
Seven years ago, Gundersen Health System created an annual six-week fitness challenge, called "Minutes in Motion." The next challenge begins on March 24, according to Christopher Stauffer, senior consultant for corporate communications. Participants perform their desired physical activity for 30 minutes every day, for a total of 1,260 minutes during the challenge period. At the end, they can win prizes, including a $500 gift card.
Almost 20 percent of Gundersen Health System's 885 employees participated in the 2013 challenge, with an average of 1,653 minutes of exercise per person during the challenge period. The top three benefits cited by employees who participated were increased energy (57.6 percent) and endurance (49.3 percent) and improved mood (48.8 percent). Average weight loss during the challenge was 6.2 pounds, Stauffer says.
Concerns: Costs, ROI and Privacy
The participants and administrators of these tech-enabled employee wellness programs say the pros far outweigh the cons. Still, potential limitations and concerns exist.
For starters, despite the "cool" factor gadgets can give wellness programs, organizations shouldn't expect a majority of their employees to participate.
"Wellness programs attempt to make health fun for employees," says Daniel McCaffrey, a behavioral scientist and consultant for Endeavour Partners. "Research suggests that such programs can help convert the employees in the getting-ready stage of behavior change into the preparation stage, but they won't help those in the not-ready phase. In addition, such programs don't usually inspire participation among those who are already active and motivated to exercise regularly."
Another potential hurdle: the cost of wearable devices. Prices "will need to drop drastically before they become the norm in wellness programs," McCaffrey says. "This is in large part due to the lack of evidence of ROI for human resources and wellness departments."
Though Appirio and VISTA Staffing Solutions both reported financial benefits, others say gains can be difficult to pinpoint, according to Megan Granat, benefits and wellness manager for Practice Fusion. However, Granat says Practice Fusion's Fitbit-based fitness program has indirect financial benefits. The program increased team building and job satisfaction, for example.
"Employees who enjoy their job and co-workers on such a deep level are less likely to seek employment elsewhere, which keeps our recruiting costs down, Granat says."
Joy Vance, senior executive assistant at Asynchrony, says it's too soon to tell if the company's high-tech wellness programs will result in financial benefits. Similarly, when asked if Garfield Group's employee fitness program has paid off financially, president and founder Larry Garfield said that "from a healthcare costs standpoint, not yet, but perhaps over time it will. From a team-bonding and data-awareness standpoint, though, it definitely has."
McCaffrey also says integrating a wellness program into a company's culture can be a "major undertaking."
"In order to succeed, wellness programs require more institutional support from top executives," McCaffrey says "This kind of top-down support has the ability to systematically shift employee perspective towards preventative care models. Ultimately, the shift is more likely to produce stronger employee adoption and engagement numbers. Executives need to drive this new culture change throughout the organization with words, actions and resources."
Some employees may hesitate, or even refuse, to share personal activity data due to privacy concerns. For example, a recent post on the Varonis blog mentions five privacy and data security issues related to wearable tech that users should keep in mind.
"Many fitness trackers' privacy policies are vague and ever-changing, with platitudes that begin with 'We respect your privacy' and end with 'We may share your information with third-parties,'" writes blogger Cindy Ng. (Varonis is a data-governance/management company.)
"Today, privacy risks are relatively low for employees because the primary data collected, such as activity, steps and calories, is nondescript," says McCaffrey.
For example, Fitbit and BodyMedia (which is owned by Jawbone) both offer employer wellness programs with privacy agreements meant to prevent employers from accessing information employees haven't agreed to share. Instead of seeing specific results from individual employees, company wellness plan administrators receive reports from Fitbit and BodyMedia in aggregate form.
"Technology is advancing rapidly, with the introduction of biometric wearables and integrative platforms," McCaffrey says. "To prepare for this change, wellness programs must re-evaluate the legal implications in regards to HIPPA. They must restructure incentive plans, simplify rollout procedures and prioritize employee engagement strategies."
As corporate healthcare costs continue to rise, observers say businesses will likely start to ask for more employee participation in wellness programs.
"Employers are increasingly calling the shots on how employees receive their benefits -- and workers may be penalized or rewarded depending upon how they take care of themselves," writes John F. Wasik in The Fiscal Times. "That means they may be subject to regular monitoring and told to enroll in healthcare management programs."
The administrators and participants in these initiatives shared advice on how to make the most of employee wellness programs that incorporate wearable monitors.
"Offer the fitness trackers as an incentive and give them away where possible," says Appirio's Daly. "Provide challenges that motivate employees to participate in your company wellness program using the tracker. Be transparent and explain how the employee metadata results may be used."
Offering fitness trackers for free isn't enough to incentivize employees, adds Asynchrony's Vance.
"You must design events around the program and give awards, even as economical as a T-shirt," Vance says. Find creative ways to recognize employees who are really committed. I also recommend just starting somewhere with these programs, even if it's small. We've always tried to communicate to our employees that this is something that will evolve over time, and we'll try to add at least one new 'initiative' to the program each year."
Granat, of Practice Fusion, suggests setting a company-wide fitness goal for a month and making sure anyone who hits the goal is recognized appropriately.
"We use raffle tickets as our reward and once a month we will pull a raffle ticket at random for a prize," such as a Bose sound system, an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet and an iPhone, Granat says. "One-off challenges also seem to be popular, such as offering a prize for walking the most steps in a single weekend day."
These are the early days of fitness-tracker-based corporate wellness initiatives, and employers looking to launch their own programs will face challenges. An informed and strategic approach can minimize risk and result in happier, healthier and more inspired employees.
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.