Should employees be forced to wear fitness trackers?

Fitness trackers — those sleek devices often strapped to wrists — are starting to become nearly as common as employee badges at some companies.

But how much do they help workers? How much do they help the companies that offer the wearables to their employees?

Companies say they offer them to make work more fun, improve workers’ health, boost employee productivity or save money on health insurance costs. Some employees and advocacy groups, however, worry that fitness trackers might invade an employee’s privacy and that some wellness programs may not be truly optional. It also remains unclear whether workplace trackers consistently improve employee health or save employers money on health care costs.

This year, 31 percent of 540 companies with 1,000 or more employees surveyed by brokerage and consultancy Willis Towers Watson offered wearable activity trackers to workers. Another 23 percent said they were considering doing so in the next two years.

“You can’t dismiss it and say it’s a flash in the pan,” said LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health. Employees like the personalized feedback and bonding with co-workers over fitness goals, she said.

This summer more than 1,000 employees at TransUnion, a Chicago-based data and analytics company, donned Fitbits in an optional competition to see which employees, floors and offices could log the most steps. TransUnion helped pay for the Fitbits, and about 30 percent of the 1,300 employees in the company’s Chicago office took part.

That included Gopi Doniparthi. The 52-year-old analyst signed on because he loves a challenge. He eventually worked his way up to 40,000 steps a day. He’d wake before sunrise for a 6-mile walk, spend his lunch break marching along the Chicago River and hike 2 miles to work rather than take a bus.

“The more I was doing, the more I wanted to do,” Doniparthi said. Doniparthi, who has Type 2 diabetes, lost body fat and saw his blood sugar levels drop. “I didn’t want to do dieting. I wanted a lifestyle change.”

The winning office – the company’s Philippines location – got to choose a charity to receive a company donation, and the individual company winner got $100.

Anne Leyden, TransUnion executive vice president of human resources, said the competition injected a bit of fun into the workplace. Employees walked in groups and posted pictures of themselves walking on social media.

TransUnion didn’t measure whether the competition shrunk its health care costs or made employees more productive because Leyden said the goal was employee support, not cost cutting.

But not all companies that offer programs are doing so just for fun.

David Rektorski, owner of truck dealership Hino of Chicago, is confident the clip-on Trio trackers his workers just started wearing will save the area company money as well as act as a perk.

“The healthier they are, the better chance I have of them coming to work,” Rektorski said.

It’s not totally clear, however, whether trackers in the workplace always lead to better health or lower costs.

Fitbit recently released a study showing that after two years, employees who took part in a Fitbit corporate wellness program had $1,300 less a year, on average, in total annual health care costs.

But other studies question how much of a difference wearables really make. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September found young adults donning wearables and dieting actually lost less weight over two years than those who dieted without fitness trackers.

Privacy issues also have been raised about the trackers, and corporate wellness programs in general. Some, such as the AARP, also worry that if the financial rewards for employees are too big, then such programs are no longer really voluntary because opting out means missing out.

In October, the AARP sued the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over new federal rules that allow companies to offer employees savings of up to 30 percent on the cost of their health insurance if they participate in a wellness program or achieve certain health goals.

The AARP argues that high financial stakes effectively make wellness programs compulsory rather than voluntary. The AARP also argued that high financial incentives could pressure workers to “reveal medical and genetic information likely to facilitate illegal workplace discrimination.”- by Lisa Schencker, Dayton Daily News (Ohio)