4 employee wellness predictions for 2017

Members of the Virgin Pulse Science Advisory board say that 2017 wellness programs will include AI, machine learning and more data than ever.

employee wellness predictions
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The end of 2016 sparks predictions about what we can expect to see in the workplace for 2017. And, for the members of the Virgin Pulse Science Advisory Board, it turns out that wellness programs will likely become a major focus for successful businesses in the coming year.

"The most forward-thinking companies are seeing the business value and benefits of providing employees with resources and tools to help individuals overcome challenges and meet personal goals -- anything from managing diabetes to saving for a child's college tuition to cooking a healthy meal," says Virgin Pulse CEO Chris Boyce.

Most companies already have some sort of employee wellness program in place, but 2017 will see major changes in how these initiatives affect profits. Not only will investing in employee's health become a way to land top talent, but it will also be the best way to ensure your company's overall success. Here are the four biggest predictions about what we can expect to see from corporate wellness programs in 2017.

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AI and machine learning for wellness

According to Dr. Rajiv Kumar, chief medical officer and president at Virgin Pulse, artificial intelligence and machine learning will play a major role in employee wellness, "bringing with it a new era of personalized content and solutions that meet each employee's highly-individualized health and wellbeing needs."

Boyce points to the fact that Virgin Pulse has already built integrations for Amazon's AI personal assistant, Alexa, to help keep employees on track and monitor their health. The idea is that tools like Alexa can collect data to learn about employee's habits over time and offer helpful suggestions. It might prompt you to go to bed on time, nudge employees who are overdue for a workout or remind them to get up from their desk to avoid sitting too long.

"We envision a future where Alexa will become a highly personalized and effective coach and mentor to guide members and their families toward healthier lifestyles throughout their day, whether it be when making breakfast in the morning, deciding when to go to the gym or what time to go to bed," says Boyce.

And, while it might sound invasive, the truth is that this technology is already in the workplace in the form of wearables, apps and fitness trackers. These tools tell you how well you slept, when to go to bed, how many calories you can eat for weight management and deliver a snapshot of your overall health. But in 2017, Boyce says these tools will be combined with beacons that will trigger reminders based on micro-locations. Beacons might be as simple as an elevator, which will prompt users to take the stairs instead, or the water cooler might act as a beacon, reminding workers to grab a glass of water when they're in the kitchen.

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Greater focus on work-life balance

Technology has revolutionized the landscape of the modern workplace -- employees can often work from anywhere with a mobile device, laptop and a Wi-Fi connection. But that's also created a hazy line between work and personal lives -- and many employees find it difficult to shut off at the end of a workday, says Boyce.

"Technology allows us to log in to work anywhere at any time while also providing us the means to take care of personal matters around the clock. Work follows us home, our outside lives follow us to the office, and we're all constantly juggling. The future workplace will see more employees looking to technology to help manage their whole lives -- personally and professionally -- and feel successful in both, no matter the time or the place," says Boyce.

Your work life might be slowly bleeding into your personal life, but it's likely that your personal life has bled into your work-life, says Boyce. Technology allows for more flexible schedules, and with an increased focus on wellbeing, it means that means more employees can get out during the day for an hour or two to attend an exercise class, pick up a sick kid or attend a doctor's appointment without using personal time.

Improved metrics drive investment

Business initiatives are often driven by ROI, and in past years, it's been difficult to show the profit that can come from employee wellness initiatives. "For a long time, many of us had a hunch that wellbeing would drive outcomes like productivity, reduce absenteeism and drive retention, but in the past several months, research has confirmed the theory," Boyce says.

In this 28-year evaluation of the stock market, researcher Alex Edmans found a correlation between "high levels of job satisfaction" and generating "high long-run stock returns." He links job satisfaction with "stronger corporate performance," and notes that these changes are often slowly implemented, with benefits increasing year over year.

Businesses can no longer ignore the benefits of employee wellness, and will need to shift from a strictly ROI focus to one that offers a more comprehensive look at how wellness initiatives impact the bottom line. David Batman, MBChB, specialist consultant of occupational medicine and former head of occupational health, safety and employee wellbeing for Nestle, says that part of this shift will come from improved dashboards and tools that will deliver better data on the "value of investment" for businesses.

"Companies increasingly demand a more holistic method of measuring the impact of their wellbeing programs on business outcomes. To understand this value, the industry will shift from a strictly financial look at effectiveness to a new set of data points, such as employee development, financial wellbeing, physical activity levels, employee productivity and business profitability, among many other areas." says Batman.

Wellness incentives get serious

There are progressive companies that already hand out wellness trackers to help incentivize employee wellness. Eric Finkelstein, PhD, executive center director at the Lien Centre of Pallative Care, professor at Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical Center, says he only sees the trend growing.

"This responsibility will be driven, in large part, through incentives that drive healthy behaviors and habits. By incentivizing the use of wearables, employers will be able to assess behavior, decisions, and progress toward individual goals. Wearables act as a validated source of data, allowing employers to gain both a tool for inspiring healthier choices and for measuring improvement and organizational outcomes," he says.

I-Min Lee, exercise science professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, points out how incentivizing employee wellness will be crucial in 2017. She says the "ethical responsibilities to help provide better lives for their employees will always be meaningful," but that with the increasing costs of healthcare -- especially prescription drug costs -- "investing in employee wellbeing programs with measurable outcomes has never been more financially responsible."

Having employee wellness programs in place is one thing, but oftentimes employees need to be incentivized to use them. The last thing you want to do is invest in an expensive initiative, only for no one to use it. And with growing costs and concerns around healthcare, companies have a responsibility to consider financial incentives to support employee wellness. Employees who are stressed about making healthcare payments, meeting deductibles or if they can afford medication do not make for happy, productive and engaged workers.

"Looking ahead, as workplace technology evolves to promote greater efficiency and output, workplace wellbeing programs will adapt to promote greater productivity, engagement, purpose and job satisfaction amongst employees," says Boyce.

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