Privacy concerns must be addressed in wellbeing tech

Wellbeing tech has become a familiar idea in workplaces globally, but what are the privacy concerns underlying this revolution?

With employee wellbeing moving up board agendas, a number of major multinational firms and small enterprises alike have embraced initiatives or technologies in the area.

Telecommunications giant Vodafone, for example, provides employees with an app to manage various dimensions of their wellbeing, monitoring their use of online services and making recommendations for healthier behaviours. Likewise, banking group BNP Paribas uses wearable technology to provide employees with personalised data to help them make healthy lifestyle choices.

From fostering a more productive workplace to reducing absenteeism and improving employee satisfaction, the right use of wellbeing technology can benefit both employers and staff.

According to a recent study conducted by Ius Laboris, 42% of respondents say employee health and wellbeing is among the top three HR challenges. However, only 2% of respondents think employee wellness will be the area where technology has the greatest impact for HR.

So, what is behind this discrepancy between awareness of the need to transform employee health and wellbeing, and the role technology should play in this process?

“Employee wellness, employee happiness and a focus on the development of employees sound good, but given the short-term focus of organisations, the real priorities are often elsewhere,” says Tom Haak, director of Amsterdam-based HR Trend Institute. “Changing people’s behaviour is not easy; there are no quick fixes even with clever technology. But organisations have a responsibility and they can do a lot to improve working conditions.”

Valuable insights into employee life

There are many technological options that forward-thinking organisations could adopt, from telehealth to telecoaching and meditation apps, to solutions backed by artificial intelligence AI) to uncover trends in employee behaviour, help employees manage their financial affairs, or receive career and life coaching and advice, or pension provision.
When correctly applied, data analytics solutions can be extremely powerful in uncovering valuable insights into staff wellbeing.

The BNP Paribas programme, for example, involves employees wearing an employer- provided electrocardiogram strap to measure heart rhythm and electrical activity for three days. The results are interpreted by an on-site physiologist, who then explains the measurements and provides coaching to individual staff members based on their specific results.

“Successful businesses understand that putting people at the heart of their strategy delivers better business performance,” says Steve Cater, vice president of growth at Mo, an employee engagement startup. “And to truly get value for the business, they must accept that technology, first and foremost, has to work for the employee. Where technology is built for the employee first, it will ultimately deliver more value for the employer.”

Ethical concerns around gathering employee data are among the most common barriers employers face when considering implementing wellness technology. While only 2% of respondents to Ius Laboris’ forces for change 2020 survey think it is not ethically acceptable to use technology to monitor, track or measure employee performance, 67% agree it is only acceptable in some limited instances.

According to a survey by Accenture, 64% of workers agreed that scandals around data privacy are making them concerned about the extent to which staff data is at risk. Companies that fail to process staff data in compliance with far- reaching regulations like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can face substantial fines, as well as experiencing costly reputational damage.

Employers are rightly nervous about getting this wrong, says Sam Fuller, founder and director of The Wellbeing Project, a consultancy specialising in employee wellbeing and resilience. However, “if they approach the right provider, they should be getting support that will lead them down the right path”.

Applicable laws in different countries will vary. “For a company to navigate this complex ethical and legal landscape, it is very important to consult with local employment law counsel to ensure local law is being respected in this sensitive area,” says Sonia Regenbogen, partner with Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark, Ius Laboris Canada. “Clearly, employers welcome innovation in technology; however, the company’s legal obligations must be considered.”

Will wellbeing tech be used by everyone?

“Despite the rapid pace of technological change, many employers are change-resistant about HR tech and slow to act,” says Peter Warman, chief executive of US-based HR Tech Insights.

“This can be because of their focus on other business functions, their concerns that employee utilisation will be low and that the gains won’t outweigh the costs, and their wariness about the regulatory and other risks of obtaining employee data.”

The level of uptake also differs across the world, sometimes for legal reasons. “In Brazil, wellbeing programmes are still in their infancy and largely focus on the prevention of occupational diseases caused by stress or repetitive movement,” explains José Carlos Wahle, partner at Veirano Advogados, Ius Laboris Brazil.

“And growth is hampered by the fact that a recent labour reform in Brazil specifies that employers are not required to pay for activities, such as resting, leisure, studies and social networking. Yet according to an article published by the magazine Época Negócios in October 2018, over 60 per cent of the companies that have implemented wellbeing programmes said they ‘improve productivity and financial results.’”

Wellbeing technology can mean myriad different things to different HR leaders and staff. For example, some businesses may gain from providing all employees with smartwatches that track physical activity to ensure they are having the appropriate number of breaks; for others, this will simply be unworkable or undesired by workers.

Bottom-line benefits for using tech

As the name suggests, it may appear on the surface that many of the benefits of enhancing employee wellbeing are aimed at improving the experience of staff, instead of bringing bottom-line business advantages. Beyond the benefits gained from having a more motivated and engaged workforce, businesses can expect to receive both direct and indirect boosts.

As wellbeing technology continues to improve, these solutions can be tailored on an individual basis to take into account the exact requirements and needs of staff. Allowing this high level of personalisation can enable staff to select the most relevant services and directly solve problems they feel need addressing.

Focusing on employee wellbeing is increasingly viewed as valuable to businesses; initiatives often enable serious issues to be identified and resolved before they present major challenges to employees and subsequently the bottom line.

Balancing act: Ethics versus efficiency

As many solutions used to enhance wellbeing are gaining traction in the consumer space, staff are rapidly warming to technologies that once seemed intrusive or were not widely adopted. A YouGov study found that in just five years the percentage of people in the UK who own a wearable device has increased from just 2% to 17%.

However, employees won’t want to feel as if they are being watched around the clock. Striking the right balance between collecting the necessary level of data and giving employees freedom from overzealous monitoring is key.

Certain types of wellbeing technology offer benefits to the employee without sharing their data with their employer; there is a clear distinction between these and types of software that are used by employers to monitor staff. A Fitbit that is provided by a business but does not feed data back to that business will likely garner more trust from employees. And wellbeing apps controlled by the employer must ensure complete transparency around how and what employee data will be processed.

“Good communication and a compelling story as to ‘why’ an organisation is gathering data is fundamental to building confidence and engagement within employee groups,” says Fuller.

Despite the challenges, companies must overcome to adopt these solutions, they risk losing a competitive edge over rivals if they fail to keep up with the advances that employee wellbeing technology can provide. Any short-term disruption caused by new solutions will soon pass, but the effects of a lack of agility and innovation could last far longer.

“There are many considerations when using technology to deliver on any employee strategy. Key to it being successful is absolute buy-in from both the executive team and the employees. If that ambition is shared, success becomes far easier,” Cater concludes.

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