The rise of wearable tech and what this means for business

By Matt Jackson, VP Client Solutions, Thomsons Online Benefits.

The wearables industry is booming. In 2019, roughly 10% of the UK’s population was using them, helping to create a sector worth hundreds of millions of pounds. But it’s not just athletes and fitness enthusiasts embracing wearables. Developments in their capabilities are making the technology relevant to all – particularly when it comes to the remarkable health insights they can offer.

Those with an eye on this year’s CES event may have noted that next-generation wearables featured heavily. These wearables offer unprecedented access to health data, helping to identify the signs of ageing, high blood pressure, sleep deprivation and even monitor glucose levels.

A few years ago, accessing this level of information would have required a trip to the doctor – not to mention a few medical tests – but not anymore. And the benefits aren’t just consumer-led; wearables could make a big impact in the business world too.

A healthier global workforce

Global employers increasingly understand that a healthier workforce is often happier and more productive. And wearables can be a key component in this, offering companies real-time insights into the activity levels of their workforce. In fact, our research found that 33% of businesses are already collecting data from wearables and this is set to soar to 81% within the next three years.

The value of these insights will increase with the maturing capabilities of AI. For example, by being able to assess employees’ likelihood of ill health later in life based on current activity levels and external factors. Given that some of the most common and costly medical conditions are linked to lifestyle factors, providing employees with an early warning that they’re more susceptible to these could help alter their behaviour. This, in turn, could encourage health improvements for individuals and the wider workforce whilst reducing costs for businesses, which will see lower health insurance premiums and fewer days lost to ill health.

The data challenge

But to capitalise on this data and get the most value from it, employers first need to undertake a significant trust building exercise with their people. Trust in data collection and usage has declined in recent years and it’s understandable that people may feel reluctant to give their employer access to personal data.

Employees need to feel confident that any information collected about them won’t impact their position within the company. For example, if genetic testing revealed a pre-disposition to heart disease or diabetes, people need to trust that their bosses won’t shy away from giving them more responsibility or a promotion in anticipation of time off for sickness that may or may not come.

There would also be a concern that employees susceptible to these conditions could see a hike in their private medical insurance premiums.

What’s more, the regulatory challenges that surround GDPR could add another layer of difficulty. There is no justification for employers to share or store individuals’ health data – meaning that drilling down to the micro level of an employees’ potential health outcomes could contravene legislation.

Despite this, the data that wearables can give businesses on the macro level is still valuable. Understanding levels of activity within the workforce compared to rates of absenteeism can provide a valuable picture of the general health of employees. And in the future, wearables data and fitness tracking may even become a standard requirement for insurance providers.

For example, US insurer, John Hancock, was one of the first in the industry to apply mandatory fitness tracking to all its schemes and UK insurer, Vitality, allows employees to link their fitness tracker or mobiles to their scheme to earn points and rewards for adopting a healthy lifestyle.

Work to be done

While the trend for wearables looks set to stay, and even grow, there’s still a job to do for businesses that want to capitalise on this wealth of data. Processes and safeguards will have to be put in place if employers are to use the data generated to greater effect. But, being able to solve this puzzle, even partially, will unlock unprecedented insights into the workforce and could lead to businesses having happier, healthier and more productive people.

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