Technology is transforming the way we manage our health, with huge benefits for individuals, employers and society. But greater adoption of these services in the workplace faces a number of challenges that must be overcome.
Step into many workplaces and there are likely to be a variety of health and wellbeing technology services in place. As well as apps providing health information and counselling, employees may have access to virtual GP services around the clock or use wearable technology to track everything from steps to glucose levels and blood pressure.
Some employers are also using technology to make workplaces smarter and healthier. For example, Ford has body tracking technology on its assembly line in Spain to enable it to design less physically stressful workstations. This will improve production and help to reduce musculoskeletal problems among its employees.
The future is even more exciting, as Mercer Marsh Benefits partner Chris Bailey explains: “Greater personalisation will be central to future developments, with genetics and big data helping to create tailored health and wellbeing advice. No two individuals are alike so this will make programmes much more engaging.”
Alongside this personal touch, more integration of technology will create ecosystems that enable healthcare to be delivered more effectively.
As an example, Frost & Sullivan digital health analyst, transformational health Chandni Mathur points to an individual who uses their Apple Watch to discover their blood pressure is a little high. They see their GP, who does a check-up and prescribes medication.
“It’s up to the individual to take the medication correctly and arrange further check-ups,” she explains. “With digital health, as well as being able to share more data from the Apple Watch with a virtual GP and receive ongoing support, the individual is much more likely to engage with and look after their health.”
More health technology will also mean more data, enabling employers to gain real insight into how their workforce performs. For instance, Bailey says employers could link together aggregated data to show them the effect of different events, such as a good appraisal or an increase in overtime, and to identify where more health interventions are required.
A matter of trust
But moving to this technologically enhanced position in the workplace isn’t without its challenges. Although employees increasingly expect their employer to help them look after their health, it’s a big leap between providing step challenges and tips on diet, and collecting data on intimate areas of employees’ health.
Given the sensitive nature of this data, employee trust is essential. “Employees must trust their employer and believe they are doing this for the right reasons,” says Aon Employee Benefits principal Mark Witte. “Without this, they simply won’t use the technology.”
Ironically, the battle to win employee trust may be aided by something that is often regarded as a challenge in this space – the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While the new requirements around consent and data security caused all sorts of headaches when the new regulations were introduced, Bailey says it now gives employees much more confidence when it comes to providing their personal data.
“It’s really helped individuals understand that their data can’t be used without their consent,” he says. “In addition, the Equality Act gives them the reassurance that, even if the employer has the data it can’t be used to discriminate against them.”
Adding further reassurance is the fact that employers never receive data from these services that would enable them to identify an individual employee. “We only provide management information on large numbers to ensure it remains anonymous,” says Simplyhealth head of corporate marketing and sales Colin Perry. “This can still be valuable to employers as it will highlight any problem areas or show them how they compare to their peers.”
Open to interpretation
Another factor that can cause apprehension and may affect both employee and employer trust is the accuracy of this technology. Misinterpreting the data or recording it inaccurately could potentially result in serious health issues being missed.
Mathur says this is something that concerns healthcare providers as well as individuals. “This apprehension is resulting in shifts to make wearables and other monitoring devices medical grade. This would create more trust too,” she adds.
There’s also some nervousness from employers around the implications of rolling out these technologies. Tasked to help an employee achieve optimum health, there is a risk a device could suggest that someone’s employment is the problem.
Although this is possible, Witte says it’s not something that should happen. “It’s the adviser’s role to ensure that products are fit for purpose,” he says. “If we recommend a provider, we will have carried out the necessary due diligence, including making sure they will interpret the data appropriately.”
While this suggests it’s unlikely that an employee would be advised to get a new job, Bailey is less concerned about this happening. While pre-employment screening makes it less likely that someone is in the wrong role, greater flexibility makes it easier to adjust a role to suit an employee.
Ensuring the nuts and bolts work is essential but the way in which health and wellbeing technology is presented to employees can also help to win their trust. “The two biggest drivers for take-up are management buy-in and an element of reward,” says Witte. “If employees see there’s something in it for them, they’re more likely to get involved.”
Likewise, employers must be careful that any technology they roll out is as inclusive as possible. Rolling out a challenge to see who can record the most steps risks alienating those employees that would probably benefit the most from such a behavioural change.
Research has also found that technology is likely to be more effective when it’s part of a broader, more diverse programme. For instance, in its report Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace: the Role of Technology, Accenture found that while 32 per cent of employees were happy to use technology as an alternative to traditional therapies for mental health, 58 per cent were concerned that it could delay someone seeking the professional help they might need.
This thinking has been recognised by RedArc Nurses, which recently partnered with Thrive Therapeutic Software to produce a mental health app. This is packaged as ‘digital and human’ to give employees the reassurance that they can choose between the two.
Power of integration
Having a well-rounded health and wellbeing proposition is important but integrating the services can supercharge the results, making it easier for employees to receive the most appropriate support quickly. However, the fragmented nature of the market is holding this integration back.
There are signs that this is changing. Insurers are broadening their propositions and virtual care giant Teladoc Health recently acquired Advance Medical and Best Doctors to become more of a one-stop shop for these services.
While this is encouraging, for now, employers are more likely to host an array of technology propositions, with free add-ons sitting alongside the paid-for services. Perry says this offers a significant opportunity to advisers. “Corporate advisers have the expertise to ensure employers select the most suitable health and wellbeing technology and that it forms part of an holistic recommendation,” he explains. “As this technology is constantly changing, this advice is really valuable.”