Wearables in the workplace

Prof. Paul Lefrere

Categories: Tech, Wellbeing

Professor Paul Lefrere is Vice President of Innovation Strategy at Strategic Bridge, who provide optimal strategies and solutions to their clients by gathering business intelligence needed to anticipate challenges.

Paul will be at our Winter Client Forum in February; we can’t wait for him to share his knowledge on innovation strategy, and how we can make the most of new technology in the world of employee benefits. Among many other things, Paul is also an Honorary Associate at the Open University. Paul’s expertise lies in analytics and innovative thinking to enhance personal and organisational development, raise resilience, reduce stress and build capacity for competitiveness.

I recently attended a meeting at a major US university on this very subject. The University are conducting a wide exploration around mental health, and how they can support both students and faculty, potentially using wearable technology. When tackling mental health in the workplace, it’s a bad idea to just not talk about it and leave it as an elephant in the room. What’s worse, however, is to monitor it without the employee’s knowledge. Unfortunately, wearables could be misused to gain information on employees’ health or orientation or friends and use it against them. This is where HR need to ensure there are boundaries in place.

In a positive sense, wearables can be useful in assisting those in a difficult situation. If we consider the recent tube strike as an analogy, a wearable which monitors the surroundings of the wearer can suggest an area which is more comfortable nearby. Wearable technology has introduced the capability to give us live updates based on sensory-driven data. For those with certain mental health issues, for example claustrophobia, this kind of assistance could be valuable to their wellbeing.

When it comes to encouraging general health and wellbeing at work, wearables can provide invaluable data; they can work together – your wearable speaks to my wearable – which can encourage healthy competition and teamwork; they can provide ‘nudges’ to get you up and active. All of which encourage healthy habits and ultimately improve productivity. However, the issue comes when gathering data and tracking healthy habits moves from negotiated privacy (data collection based on ‘respect for the individual’ and attentiveness to employee benefits), to secret surveillance (a short step to an unpleasant work environment).

HR professionals must therefore have an input into the usage of wearables at work and must be the guardians of privacy for the individuals in your organisation. In many organisations, HR may not be part of the initial conversation when it comes to advanced technology and security. But HR teams can look at the business as a whole, and ensure the advantages of using technology is not at the expense of the fair treatment of your employees.

From a security point of view, wearable technology can be useful in tracking where people and devices are located; managers could be interested in using this data to ensure that people are not taking advantage of sick days etc., which is where HR need to bring the human aspect to the technology. Privacy solutions should absolutely have an HR voice, otherwise the trust between employee and employer is compromised. When implementing wearables at work, the effect on mental health of your employees must also be at the forefront of the conversation. Most people would agree that they don’t enjoy the feeling of having someone continually look over your shoulder, and this is particularly relevant to those with mental health issues. You can panic people by showing how much you know about them.

Ultimately, although wearable technology is revolutionising fitness, wellbeing and work; we must tread carefully. Just because we can track something 24/7/365, it doesn’t mean we should.

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