9 ways corporate fitness and wellness programs will change in 2016

Enterprise-wide fitness challenges and wellness programs had a banner year in 2015, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of activity trackers and other wearables. In 2016, organizations will look for programs that take employee health a step further.

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An emphasis on sleep in 2016

Many modern activity trackers, including Fitbit's Charge HR and Surge, Misfit Shine 2, and Nuyu Activity Tracker, automatically track users' sleep. Some corporate wellness programs provide employers with aggregated data about employee sleep trends, which they can use to help make staff more aware of potential sleep problems and suggest ways to enhance sleep quantity and quality.

Some employers now believe the blue rays in the "ordinary white light" that comes from devices such as tablets and smartphones can disrupt sleep and affect health, according to Richard L. Hansler, Ph.D., a retired scientist for General Electric and one of three scientists who created the website LowBlueLights.com

Real-time fitness data will help demonstrate ROI in 2016 …

"The big data movement will continue to penetrate corporate wellness programs," says Phil Daniels, cofounder of Healthiest Employers. "Employers are gaining access to the data silos that have traditionally been difficult to translate into decisions. For example, employers are auditing and evaluating claims data, biometric results, and pharmacy usage to feed predictive modeling forecasts on a near real-time basis, instead of waiting for the year-end snapshot. This allows a much more flexible approach to adjust spending throughout the year for the greatest impact and ROI."

Daniels adds that 45 percent of U.S. employers expect to report the wellness program performance data to senior management on a quarterly basis, compared to the annual reporting of years past. (Daniels says his numbers come from analyzing the wellness programs of 4,000 employers in 45 U.S. cities.) 

"As employers adopt analytics and predictive modeling software, ROI becomes more quantifiable," Daniels says. "We're seeing an increased interest in employers validating and measuring their wellness vendors because there's a more complete, objective data set available to prove outcomes." 

… But showing ROI will remain a challenge

A recent study from the RAND Corporation found that for every dollar invested in enterprise wellness programs, the overall ROI is $1.50. However, companies will continue to struggle with measuring the ROI of corporate wellness programs in 2016, according to Mike Tinney, CEO of Fitness Interactive Experiencehttp://www.astepaheadchallenge.com/about-fix/.

"You can measure health improvement through biometric screening," Tinney says. "You can measure engagement and retention. You can count calories and steps. But a hard ROI is challenging, because your biggest expense relating to health is insurance, and many external factors influence the cost of insurance coverage. If you're willing to buy into the notion that a healthier human being is more efficient, sick less often and happier, then investing in these programs for your employees (and yourself) makes a lot of sense."

Lingering privacy, security concerns in 2016

Some employees worry that the activity and other health data collected by employers will be used against them, causing their health insurance premiums to increase and their chances for promotions or raises to diminish. Though most enterprises are working hard to overcome such concerns, it is likely impossible to alleviate them for everyone. 

"People worry about Big Brother and surveillance," said André Spicer, a Cass Business School professor at City University London, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review. "We shell out hundreds of dollars for tracking bands, something convicts are forced to wear. If you're volunteering to do it and it helps your wellness, that's probably good. But it gets complicated when companies want to mandate the use of this technology, because it completely breaks down the barrier between work and life. Suddenly, whether or not I go for a jog on my own time is something my company is tracking. That's a slippery, slippery slope."

Fitness challenges increasingly tied to charity

In 2015, Target was among a set of large enterprises that tied fitness challenges to charitable donations. The team that won Target's recent month-long challenge received $1 million to donate to the charity of its choice.

"A growing body of research suggests that altruism is an effective, low-cost, and meaningful way to reduce stress and improve wellbeing," says ShapeUp's Kumar. "In 2016, employers will begin to capitalize on this, offering ways for employees to tap into their innate altruism while achieving health goals. The framework already exists. For example, in 2015, many employers offered employees the opportunity to donate their earned incentive dollars to charity. But this is an area ripe for innovation and has huge engagement potential, as employees want opportunities to do good."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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