How HR uses fitness trackers to increase company wellness

Corporate wellness programs used to involve lackluster participation, a pedometer and potentially fudged numbers on a spreadsheet. But FitBit is changing the way HR departments implement corporate wellness programs -- and the results may surprise you.

Fitness trackers being used by human resources

Companies have discovered that happy employees make for better business, and it's not just about productivity. Healthy employees affect the bottom line, ultimately costing a company less money in the long run than unhealthy employees, according to a report in the Harvard Business Review. The article highlights a study by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health, which found that employee wellness programs can significantly improve employee retention: Nine percent of employees left a company with a strong wellness program, while a company without a focus on corporate wellness lost 15 percent of its employees voluntarily.

The benefits of a well-organized corporate wellness program are clear, but how can HR get employees to actually participate in these efforts? One trend that has emerged, thanks to technology, is equipping employees with fitness trackers to motivate them towards their goals. One of the more popular choices, Fitbit, offers several models of fitness trackers, which makes it a great option for an entire business. Runners can get a watch equipped with a heart rate sensor and GPS and those who prefer to focus on steps and nutrition can stick with the entry-level Flex, with more devices in between. "There really isn't a one size fits all program, and there's a really broad definition of what corporate wellness means," says Amy McDonough, vice president & general manager of Fitbit Wellness, "So it can be everything from a stepping or walking based program -- and that's maybe an easy place to get started and get your team engaged -- to everything that ties back into a benefits design and program."

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Fitbit is a game-changer

Fitbit hasn't just changed how consumers view their own health goals, it's also changed the way HR views corporate wellness programs. In the past, if HR wanted to organize a wellness event, it required paperwork, pedometers, handwritten notes and a lot of time and energy for HR workers, on top of their other duties. Employees would have to fill out forms outlining their exercise for the past month, which lent itself to limited accountability and a lack of verification. With the Fitbit program, all of that is taken care of for HR, so they can simply get down to analyzing the data.

Interestingly, Fitbit finds that a lot of the companies it works with decide on a fitness tracker based program out of personal experience. "If you think about your executive or HR manager who maybe got [a Fitbit] on their own and then they think about how much more effective this would be if they could pull this into their corporate wellness program that they have responsibilities for," says McDonough.

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Implementing a widespread wellness program complete with fitness trackers and new technology can be understandably overwhelming, depending on the size of the company, but HR departments aren't left to their own devices. Fitbit helps with acquisition of the devices by designing company-specific online storefronts for employees where they can choose the device that best suits them at a subsidized cost determined by the company.

Employees can also get training from Fitbit so they are prepared to use their new devices. HR employees get training from Fitbit on how to use the administrator platform, which gives them access to aggregate data around the health progress of employees. Of course, employees must opt in to share this data, and it's generally limited to overall stats, so an HR manager can't drill down into one employee's specific habits.

Let's get physical and social

Fitbit's user interface also encourages engagement through a social and competitive component. You can connect with one another online, so an entire team can compete for the most steps in a day or week. Getting executives on board is another motivating factor, as one hospital, Houston Methodist discovered. After learning that Fitbit users who have at least one friend with a Fitbit get 27 percent more steps than those who don't, the hospital subsidized the cost for not only its employees, but their spouses or partners as well. And it worked, Houston Methodist found employees were taking more steps, getting out during breaks and forming better relationships with coworkers over step counts. In the end, 90 percent of employees participated in the corporate wellness program and averaged 16,000 steps per day.

And executive participation can help the people in charge form better relationships with their employees. At Houston Methodist, "The CEO actually put out his step count, published it, felt comfortable with that and asked everyone who worked for his organization to try to beat his step count," says McDonough.

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HR can use fitness trackers to motivate employees to take part in corporate wellness efforts by offering prizes and incentives throughout the program. For example, Houston Methodist gave employees credits that helped them get a better shot at winning the grand prize of $10,000. In the end, nearly all the employees who participated also indicated they would continue to use their fitness tracker and would gladly participate in another competition.

Can Fitbit bring insurance costs down?

And it's not just companies seeing the cost-saving benefits of healthy employees, even insurance companies are incentivizing healthy clients with lower premiums and other rewards using fitness trackers. The healthier you get, the better discount you can get on your monthly healthcare fees.

While the idea of a company-issued fitness tracker has some screaming "big-brother surveillance," with the Fitbit program, employees have to give explicit consent to have their data shared, and any data that is shared gives an overall picture of progress rather than specific details. Even with concerns, fitness trackers certainly aren't going anywhere, especially with the dawn of the smartwatch -- tech companies seem adamant on getting a connected device on to every wrist.

This story, "How HR uses fitness trackers to increase company wellness" was originally published by CIO.