Wellness programs are getting on board and beginning to integrate the tools that have helped revolutionize the business world – wearable technology, gamification, social sharing, and mobile access.

Wearable tech was the talk of the town from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to SXSW in Austin, Texas.  And, its not just talk – 14 million wearable devices were shipped in 2011 and the market for wearables is predicted to reach 6 billion by 2016.

As consumers move to embrace mobile and wearable technology, companies like Apple and Samsung are finding new ways to put wellness directly into the hands of consumers. Wellness applications that integrate with employer health and wellness programs can hardly be far behind.

Wearable technologies will unlock opportunities for companies looking to transform the work environment and catapult employee wellness programs to a new level.

HR departments can capitalize on the growing wearable trend to encourage healthy habit-formation and healthier lifestyles.  Moreover, wearables enable organizations to more effectively measure participation and outcomes, and offer employees appropriate incentives to keep up the good work.

Encouraging Behavior Change and Habit Formation

Unsolicited advice rarely moves the needle.   How often do you actually act on the free advice you are offered every day?

To be successful introducing wearable technology to employees, employers must understand the specific wellness needs and desires of their employees and make sure the technologies they offer align with employee’s interests.

Tracking steps and monitoring heart rates might promote greater physical activity but will only work over the long term if each wearable device fits employee needs and works with employees to deliver the desired result – for them.

Rather than chase after the ‘coolest’ wearables available, HR departments will succeed by working to understand each employees’ unique needs and interests.

Gamification: Incentivize and Interact

Wearables open up new windows of opportunity – they enable employees to interact, share and compare results, and motivate one another to succeed.   They also operate where people spend the most time – while they are mobile.

The most successful wellness programs engage and reward employees for participating in wellness initiatives.  The same will hold true for wearable wellness.  Some companies are even incentivizing competitions using wearable technologies.  Looking at an example close to home – North Shore’s LI Jewish Health System embraced gamification by holding a pedometer competition, measuring which employees literally took the most steps.  The winner of this step contest won a trip to Paris (where they were able to take many more steps in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.)

Ongoing Measurement of Outcomes

A major issue for employers is figuring out how to determine appropriate wellness outcomes and measure them.  For many wellness programs, vendors suggest that it takes up to three years to see significant return-on-investment (ROI), which is defined as a reduction in health care costs.

It seems absurd to have to wait three years to get results from your wellness program in this high tech, always connected, wearable world. Technology should allow us to make much more timely decisions and have access to actionable data that allows us to achieve our long-term goals.  We should choose wearable technology based on how well it fits into our actionable goals – and how quickly it can provide us with actionable data and results.

The most fundamental question to ask about wearable technology is not what it enables employees to do – but rather, we should ask what wearable technology does that matters for our employees.  Does the technology work to help employees achieve their goals and does it fit their needs, interests, and values so that its benefits can be sustained?

Simple questions, such as those below, could yield valuable information that will point to the success or failure of the choices you make:

  • Are our employees’ health and wellness goals being met through the wearables we have deployed?
  • To what extent is this technology improving our employees’ wellness in different domains?
  • Is this technology a good fit for them?

Ongoing outcome measurement is also important, so it is critical to keep employees engaged in conversation, asking them not only how many steps they have taken but also how those steps are helping them reach their personal goal lines.

The Bigger Picture – Promoting Health and Wellness

Wearable devices can be a transformational tool for HR departments.  By helping employees achieve goals that are important to them – goals that they are ready to take-on – and using methods that fit their needs, interests, and values, employers open the door for sustainable wellness.

Introducing wearable technology into corporate wellness programs offers a new way to engage employees individually and in a social context. By incorporating wearables into existing wellness programs, employers can transform the workplace into a place that promotes and celebrates employee health and wellness.