How technology can help improve employee health

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How technology can help improve employee health

Key points

Business case

  • Increasing number of employers are implementing schemes based around wearables
  • Benefit providers are also getting involved, introducing apps or online products to help improve wellbeing
  • But putting strategy in place and measuring impact is challenging 

Improving the wellbeing of staff has become increasingly important for employers. Nick Martindale looks at how technology can play a role in improving employee health

In recent years, the issue of workplace health has been steadily rising up the agenda, with most employers now appreciating the link between healthy and productive staff, and between those who live unhealthy lifestyles and high levels of absence. The emphasis has, rightly, been on all aspects of health, ranging from identifying illnesses to improving physical health, and, more recently, a greater focus on mental health and wellbeing.

Technology, in various forms, is helping employers in their fight against illness and unhealthy lifestyles. This can come in many guises, ranging from online guides, health assessments and interactive websites, to dedicated apps monitoring important areas such as exercise, diet or sleep, and even wearable technology, primarily recording levels of physical activity.

Wearables

"The main technologies are employee portals and websites, health incentive apps and wearables such as Fitbits and Apple watches," says Gary Peace, corporate sales manager at The Health Insurance Group.

"They all help by increasing the employee's knowledge of their own behaviours. Technology that is built correctly will then go on to suggest improvements or give advice on how to change behaviour to become healthier."

Many employers are already implementing their own schemes based around wearables, says Cheryl Brenan, director of corporate risk at employee benefit firm Punter Southall Health & Protection, but this is also starting to be driven by insurers.

Punter Southall, for instance, has developed its Havensrock income protection package where employees receive a wearable device which can track exercise and sleep patterns, which can then be viewed on an interactive wellbeing portal.

Staff also receive a mini workplace healthscreen to identify key health data.

"The data coming out of such programmes should help in developing future wellbeing initiatives that will help reduce insurer claims and allow the insurer to really support employers," Brenan says.

Apps and online portals

Employee benefit providers are also getting in on the act, either developing apps or online products themselves or introducing third-party products.

Reward Gateway recently launched SmartFit, which allows users of its employee benefits portal to access a range of discounted fitness products, including gym memberships, yoga classes, swimming, pilates and bootcamps.

"Employees are not forced into one type of fitness option and can choose what works for their lifestyle," explains Debra Corey, group reward director at Reward Gateway.

Significantly, it also allows companies to monitor take-up.

"It is important that, as with any benefit programme, companies monitor usage, ensuring both the employees and the employer have a return on investment," adds Corey.

"This doesn't mean being intrusive, for example, monitoring how often employees go to the gym, but it is about supporting employees on their wellbeing journey: making sure they are aware of the benefit, supporting them in using it, and checking in to see how they are getting on."

New apps are emerging all the time, something which led AXA PPP healthcare to set up the AXA PPP Health Tech & You awards. The awards have already uncovered a number of new offerings, which could help to make it easier for organisations to influence the behaviour of their staff.

"One example of new health tech is Psyomics, a biotech start-up which created a platform to help users improve their psychological resilience," says Dr Chris Tomkins, head of proactive health for AXA PPP healthcare.

The organisation won the Problem/Solution Award at this year's event, he adds, and AXA is currently looking to trial the product in its own offering.

Some apps focus more around medical data rather than diet or exercise. The LifeTracker from Thriva, for instance, allows staff to conduct finger-prick blood tests at home which can record information such as cholesterol or Vitamin D levels, and identify potential issues such as iron deficiency or poor liver function.

"While personal fitness trackers and wearables are a popular way of measuring performance, they provide very limited insight into the state of your body or the impact of poor lifestyle choices," says Hamish Grierson, co-founder and CEO at Thriva.

"Our blood test insights make health issues very personal and real. If you discover you have high levels of cholesterol or poor liver function and are at risk of developing a disease, you become very connected to what your body is trying to tell you and are far more likely to take corrective action."

Implementation barriers

But despite the growing emergence of apps there are still barriers. Matthew Lawrence, head of proposition, health and risk at Aon Employee Benefits, believes employers are still figuring out just how best to use this new technology in the workplace, although its own research suggests that 94% of employers feel responsible for trying to positively influence the lifestyle risks of their employees.

"It is still relatively early days in terms of implementation and measuring the impact, although we have seen some initial efforts with things like virtual GPs and health apps," Lawrence says.

"There is lots of focus on how powerful wearables and technology could be but equally lots of debate as to how effective lifestyle-related wearable technology and health apps actually are, particularly in the medium to long term. Is the real appeal to the already fit and healthy or the worried well rather than the real target audience, namely those who need a little push to improve their lifestyle risks?"

This is an ongoing issue for health and wellbeing initiatives, but technology can help by introducing a competitive element, believes Jack Curzon, head of scheme design at Thomsons Online Benefits.

"At the moment most technology will find out an employee's current status, but it needs to move to motivating people to do things to improve their health," he says.

"We have seen a few clients do this successfully by rolling out wearable technology or apps to record things like the number of steps people take a day, where they have a weekly step leader chart. They take the stairs instead of the lift, or go for a longer walk at lunchtime. That's a really positive way of doing it because it is not too intense."

Employees could also be incentivised through prizes, Curzon adds, such as funds to be spent on sports or exercise equipment of their choice.

Oleg Fomenko is founder of Sweatcoin, an app which rewards people for undertaking physical activity and allows them to spend their rewards on a wide range of products.

"Typically you need to maintain physical activity for four to six weeks to start seeing a difference, and most people can't wait that long and they give up," Fomenko says.

"The idea with Sweatcoin was to use technology to bring instant gratification to being physically active."

Fomenko  even suggests employers could reward employees for such activity with extra days' holiday, on the basis that any amount of days they lose would be more than recouped through lower absence rates.

Joined-up strategy

Employers also need to ensure they interpret data from any use of technology and tailor their strategy accordingly, if they are to get full value from such initiatives.

"At the moment these offer health information but not proactive use of that data," says Curzon.

"It's a bit like health screens. They can be very popular and give people a really in-depth look at their health status, much more than a wearable could, but that information is meaningless without a follow-up treatment plan. Saying to someone they're not exercising enough or they weigh too much is not useful."

Instead, he says, businesses should interpret the data and develop a strategy to provide mental, physical and social support as part of a campaign to improve health and wellness.

Kirsty Jagielko, head of marketing at Cigna HealthCare Benefits, also stresses the need for a joined-up strategy, with data from wearables such as FitBits, Jawbones and Garmins used in conjunction with more health-focused apps.

"Health apps enable employees to take a closer look at their health status and enjoy easy access to practical health and wellbeing advice, coaching and even virtual GP appointments," she says. "With the right approach, employers can use health and wellbeing apps to encourage healthier lifestyle behaviours, while making it easier for their employees to access help and advice when they need it."

In the longer term, Curzon says the hope is that data from technology - whatever form it takes - can help integrate with insurance provisions, delivering lower premiums as well as reduced absence costs for those organisations which can demonstrate an improvement in employee health.

"I'm hoping that providers will be able to use this information and prove that ABC is a healthy organisation," he adds. "That could influence insurance schemes with premiums or create treatment plans which are more relevant to that population."

However, organisations need to be careful their well meaning interventions are not taken in the wrong way.

"There is a fine line between giving employees the chance to make healthy choices and providing them with the right kind of support and being seen as a Big Brother employer," says The Health Insurance Group's Peace.

"I am not sure there are many employees who would be keen to put on a wearable for their first day of work. People can sometimes be slightly sceptical over any new technology and equally suspicious of the kind of information that is being stored and used, and for what purpose."

Having visible support from senior management is important in helping to overcome such concerns, suggests AXA's Tomkins, including making available their own "health age" and how they intend to improve it.

The business case, though, is already starting to stack up. Tomkins references a trial AXA conducted with activity monitors and a smart platform which led to a drop in blood pressure among participants over a three-month period.

More generally, he points to a corporate client which saved almost £300,000 over two years by removing lifestyle risk factors around weight, sleep and alcohol consumption from its employees.

"What's more, the business has reduced its ‘health age', meaning employees should be more able to age well," Tomkins adds.

"There is a risk for many employees who are not ageing well that they drop out of the workforce early due to ill-health. For an employer, this could ensure senior expertise is not lost through people leaving the business."

Yet there is clearly still significant untapped potential that has yet to be realised.

"In future, the focus will be on combining technology focused on lifestyle-related factors with a more personalised medical focus," says Lawrence.

"The ability to use technology to promote good health and educate employees, support employees when they have a health situation and to potentially prevent a medical situation evolving could be a key people risk-management tool for the future. It is possibly not that far away."

 

How Manifest encouraged its staff to become more active

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Branding and marketing agency Manifest (pictured) places a strong emphasis on employee wellbeing, so when it heard about the concept of Sweatcoin and how it would reward staff for becoming more active the company was keen to give it a go.

The business became the first user of the new app, rolling it out to its 30 employees in London and five in the New York office.

"We know that productivity increases when our staff are well, healthy and active, and I really liked the idea that we could provide some softer benefits for employees based around how well they were, to motivate them to maintain movement in their daily routine," says Manifest CEO Alex Myers.

The employees "crowdsourced" the rewards they could access, which include getting Myers to make a round of tea as well as discounted gym membership, yoga classes and massage.

The company has used the app for four months and so far the results have been encouraging.

"The thing that surprised me most of all is the change in behaviour," says Myers. "It has made people more active. We now see meetings in the diary as being a walk around the block."

The business has a variety of employees ranging from "fitness bunnies to couch potatoes", but the appeal has been across the board.

"Because Sweatcoin isn't based on exercise but motion and movement it's really accessible for everyone," says Myers. "We have people walking to work and getting out at lunchtime instead of eating al-desko."

The business has even been able to monitor impact on morale, through a piece of software it already has to record the mood of staff.

"We have a happiness officer who monitors that and we have seen it improve," adds Myers. "Wellbeing and happiness go hand in hand in the office environment."

Even four months in, Myers says there's a buzz around the app.

"There's not a day goes by when someone doesn't mention Sweatcoin or how they should spend them," he says. "It's become part of the office culture very quickly."

 

Key points

Business case

  • Increasing number of employers are implementing schemes based around wearables
  • Benefit providers are also getting involved, introducing apps or online products to help improve wellbeing
  • But putting strategy in place and measuring impact is challenging 

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