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HUMAN RESOURCES

Put the FitBit Down: Why You Shouldn't Use Wearables to Monitor Employees' Health

Sometimes, counting every step can take you down the wrong path.
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I wear a FitBit and compete with my friends for the most number of steps each week. But, it's only a friendly competition and meant only to encourage us to be a bit healthier. But what it if it wasn't friends encouraging friends, but your boss? And the reward wasn't the satisfaction of knowing you walked 10,000 more steps than Karen and Eleanora, but that your health insurance premiums were lower?

No one wants to pay more for health insurance premiums, but is using wearable devices to monitor your employees' health really a good option?

Some companies think so. Forbes reports that petroleum giant BP uses FitBit data to grant discounts on health insurance rates. And we've reported on companies like Global Corporate Challenge that will help you set up competitions among employees to encourage their overall "wellness."

Some people love it. Especially those who get to shell out less cash for health insurance. But, there is a dark side to the collection and use of all this data. Here's why you should reconsider (literally) tracking your employees every step:

1. It's intrusive. Do you really want to know what is going on in your employees' personal lives? Do you really need to see that Jane, apparently, sits on the couch every Saturday and Sunday, while Steve is a jogger. Will you  hold that information against them, subtly labeling Jane as lazy, regardless of actual work performance?

2. Savings may not measure up. It's true that healthy employees lower your overall health-care costs. But, with today's fluid career paths, most employees aren't going to stay with your company for 30 years. The chances of them having a serious health problem that could be lessened by hitting 10,000 steps every day while an employee of your company are minimal. Just how much health savings will you really see? Larger companies, of course, can see bigger reductions. But, the chances of your 60-person startup seeing huge reductions in insurance costs are pretty slim.

3. You may be focusing on the wrong things. If you have a company dedicated to wellness, focusing on your employees' physical activity is probably helpful. But, otherwise, shouldn't your focus be on their ultimate output and not their step counts? Do your clients call up and say, "Gee, can you assign me the analyst that routinely gets 15,000 steps a day?" Of course not. They want the analyst that routinely does an awesome job in a short amount of time--which may mean little time for walking.

4. Competition is good, to a point. I'm naturally competitive, so I love looking at my steps and when my friends pass me, I'll often make it a point to go on an extra walk. But, it's all fun and good and we're friends. They aren't my co-workers, with whom I compete for projects, and a piece of the very small raise and promotion pie. Some people hate competition but may be fabulous workers. Do you want to alienate these members of the workforce?

5. You could wind up breaking the law. Right now the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits companies from discriminating against people with disabilities and requires you to provide "reasonable accommodations" if someone with a disability needs a bit of  help to do the job. If you start spending too much time on these types of programs, you may open yourself up to the potential of a discrimination lawsuit. You need to be extremely careful that your step counts don't have anything to do with money, position, or promotion. Hiring John instead of Jane because you're pretty sure he can get his step count up to beat the neighboring department, may result in a lawsuit from Jane.

6. Check with an attorney. I hate to constantly warn people to check with the lawyers, but the reality is, you need to check with the lawyers. You need an employment lawyer on speed dial and this is one of those things you should definitely inquire about. You need to make sure whatever program you set up doesn't violate any federal, state, or local laws.

Last updated: May 5, 2014

SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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