Healthy is good for people so it must be equally good for their employers. Not so fast. Employee wellness programs have exploded across our fibit-ized lives. But as connected wearables track our body’s every movement, (with questionable accuracy), larger questions are bubbling up about our employer’s ability to use that data to increase our well-being while lowering company healthcare costs and boosting productivity.

Healthcare experts and an HR researcher recently put their heads together to talk about HR’s role in health and wellness programs during an SAP Radio broadcast of Changing the Game with HR entitled, Health and Wellness: HR’s New Call to Action.  Host and moderator Bonnie D. Graham launched the conversation by pointing out that sharing any kind of personal information is predicated on trust, and that’s particularly the case when it comes to our health.

Unending ounces of prevention

Used in the right way, information from sensors could help reduce obesity to head off preventable illnesses such as Type II diabetes. The idea is to track someone’s exercise habits, sleep, nutrition, weight and so forth, and get them to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

“We’re all catching on to the fact that what we need to do is treat people before they’re sick,” said Linda Townsend, founder of Release Well-Being Center. “While this won’t necessarily be total prevention because they’d be picking up on some sort of markers in the body perhaps, it’s certainly good information that can be used to catch things early or encourage healthy lifestyles.”

This will only work if wellness programs aren’t one-off competitions a la Biggest Loser contests or 5k runs with short-term gains and no lasting effects. “Wellness programs that are focused more holistically and on lifestyle change are far more successful, actually impacting the long-term health of the employee and the bottom line for the organization,” said Townsend.

Data impact: it’s not about just you

Grant Gordon, CEO and co-Founder of Artemis Health, has worked with approximately 300 benefits teams, and said that companies are terrified of seeing any individual’s data because the last thing they want is for somebody to get fired for totally unrelated reasons.

“What they do want to know is, looking at my population…how can I roll out programs that materially impact their lives? How can I make them not just happier at work, but also happier at home because I reap the benefit of that all around and it’s the right thing to do,” said Gordon. “Even if they are pulling in step-by-step, FitBit-like data, they’re trying to understand if the programs that they’re using impact members in a way they can quantify from a financial or healthiness perspective.”

Measuring ROI is a challenge

Drawing on his background in occupational health psychology, Joe Sherwood, HCM Researcher at SAP SuccessFactors, said he’s seen measurable effects on the performance and engagement of people who have participated in company wellness programs. However, ROI is another matter.

“Jobs and managerial relationships with employees can definitely be designed and cultivated in such ways that stress is reduced and employees sleep better,” he said. “But it’s difficult to see ROI because if you think about what these programs do, they’re not necessarily related to return on investment..there are challenges in terms of looking at hard dollars spend versus earned in terms of productivity of your workforce.”

Sherwood advised companies embarking on a wellness program to nail down the metrics first, such as employee data by level, objective or subjective measures of health, mental or physical health, or performance. “If you know what you’re going to track and you know the outcomes you expect, then you can create a program that drives those,” he said.

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