Whether it’s because employers like the quantifiable data they provide, employees like competing to see who can record the most steps, or because they can effectively engage large populations in company-wide fitness efforts, wearable devices are popular tools in health and well-being programs. As a result, it is more important than ever for benefit advisers to understand both when and how to effectively integrate wearables into their clients’ wellness plans.

In its 2016 Wearable Future 2.0 study, PWC found 45% of people reported wearing a fitness band and 27% reported wearing a smart watch. Another industry report estimates there could be more than 75 million wearables in the workplace by 2020.

Bloomberg/file photo

While there is clear excitement about wearable technology, there is also evidence that initial feeling does not automatically translate into long-term use or behavior change. Fifty-three percent of employers in a 2015 Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) study on use of wearables said they saw high and sustained interest in the program, while 38%t said there was high interest that trailed off after several months.

A case study of a wearable program begun in 2014 at Emory University reveals how leveraging technology to generate excitement among employees can help.

Emory brought in the wearables as part of a comprehensive Healthy Emory initiative developed in partnership with Aon Hewitt. Emory wanted to ensure a positive and energizing employee experience, and a review of employee health data indicated many employees needed and wanted to become more physically active.

Also see:Benefits: What’s on the rise and what’s on the decline?

To encourage that activity, Emory implemented a wearables-powered physical activity program called the Move More Challenge. As presented at the 2016 HERO Forum, the Move More Challenge was a team-based activity built on the idea people are more likely to follow through on something when their success affects the success of their friends and co-workers. This idea was reinforced as friendly competition among employees at Emory University and Emory Healthcare helped keep people engaged and active.

Emory, which has 29,000 employees across the university and health system and is the second largest employer in metro Atlanta, didn’t just hand out fitness bands, though. Because they wanted the program to be as seamless and accessible as possible, they tested the waters with a 1,400-person pilot program.

There was an instinctive belief going in that employees would be enthusiastic about wearables, but Emory wanted to gain a better understanding of what worked and what didn’t, how the process could be most effective, and how to make a business case for an organizational investment in wearable devices for all employees when the time was right. Starting with a pilot program helped the team set realistic goals and better assess the effectiveness of the challenge once it rolled out system wide.

The pilot program included an eight-week physical activity challenge, followed by six months of “watchful waiting” to see how behaviors changed. The program was designed to be fun for employees and to inspire interest in the broader Healthy Emory efforts. Results were encouraging, including:

  • 82% of participants said they wore their devices every day during the eight-week challenge.
  • Results at completion and at three- and six months post-program nearly met, and in some cases exceeded, goals. More specifically:
  • 96% of employees either strongly agreed or agreed the program was valuable;
  • 91% said they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied”;
  • 89% averaged 5,000 or more steps per day; and
  • 92% agreed or strongly agreed step counts motivated them to be more active.

As the Healthy Emory team expected, this advance planning created a solid foundation for success by identifying ways to strengthen the program before expanding to the entire population.

Promising practices for wearables success
While a pilot program helped Emory build its challenge, this isn’t the only path for benefit advisers to follow as they build a successful wellness program. A new report from HERO provides direction on six such promising practices to consider as wearables become a more prominent part of their wellness offerings:
1) Use a pilot program to help employers set realistic goals and fine-tune their program, and to help them make a stronger business case for the expanded program.

2) Encourage employers to offer wearables to spouses and domestic partners so employees have someone at home motivated to be active with them.

3) Identify incentives that make sense for an employer and tie them to wearable use. For example, a prime parking spot or internal recognition might be more meaningful in some organizations than a cash incentive.

4) Encourage employers to provide wearable devices free of charge. Eliminating the need for employees to buy the devices eliminates a financial barrier to participation.

5) Make ongoing enhancements part of the program. Changing things up from time to time keeps things fresh.

6) Help an employer identify measurable goals for the program and use wearables data to evaluate success.

Emory’s pilot program led to significant increases in daily activity, positive employee feedback, and good intentions among employees to continue using the wearable device long after the Move More Challenge had ended. That small-scale success ultimately helped lay the groundwork for the larger Healthy Emory program.

Wellness leaders made sure the Move More Challenge was integrated into Emory’s broader Healthy Emory initiatives. They set incentives for employees, communicated regularly though a large, established Wellness Champion network, and refined the program as they went in order to keep participants engaged. There were prizes associated with the average number of steps employees took. Employees who averaged 5,000 or 10,000 steps per day were placed into a raffle for an iPad mini after four weeks and for an Apple Watch at the end of eight weeks. These step goals were established based on data from the pilot program.

In 2015, of the 29,338 eligible employees, 6,300 signed up for the Move More Challenge. Among these participants, 5,200 remained active throughout the entire eight weeks of the challenge — which represented the first experience with a wearable for 67% of participants — and 82% of participants said they wore their device every day. The data from Emory’s 2016 Move More Challenge were even better, garnering 7,500 participants with higher program completion rates and higher post-program device utilization.

The takeaway for employers and benefit advisers: Start small, listen to employees during the pilot phase and use feedback to evolve your long-term plan. Doing so just might be the key to improving your wearables strategy and your overall program outcomes.

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