This essay appears in today's edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.
The news has been rough of late in the wearables world. Earlier this month, Fitbit CEO James Park said the company was “starting to see some headwinds” in the business, including “some softening of demand.” Fitbit is now forecasting revenue growth of 2-5% for the fourth quarter, down from a scorching full-year pace of around 25%.
Meanwhile, sales and shipments of the Apple Watch, the category giant, are down sharply from last year—at least according to research analysts. (The company is coy when it comes to breaking out sales of the device in its earnings reports, posting the numbers under the heading, “Other Products.”) And Intel may or may not be “stepping back” from its wearables business, as TechCrunch reported on Friday, citing “sources close to the company.” On Saturday, sources within the company rebutted the claim.
All of these data points (and data rumors) seem to reflect what has long been considered a truism of health and fitness trackers: that consumers utterly adore them . . . until they utterly lose interest. That often takes six months or less. The phenomenon has big implications for workplace wellness programs. Nearly one in three large employers offered their workers physical-activity trackers in 2016, according to global advisory Willis Towers Watson.
But does this “perk” even make sense anymore if the devices just end up in a sock drawer?
Well, a report released today suggests there may be hope for the beleaguered industry—and for workplace health programs in general. Jiff—a firm that partners with large self-insured companies to connect their employees to the right health and wellness benefits (and hopefully lower the companies’ healthcare costs in the process)—evaluated data from nearly 250,000 employees at more than a dozen of its client companies over a 22-month span. What it found was that the wearables are wearing out their welcome for a reason: Employees are given the devices, but too often not given a context for using them.
In contrast, at companies where there is a “culture of health”—where employers offer things like “step challenges” (everyone is encouraged to walk a certain number of steps, say, over a given two-week period) and have frequent conversations about employee well-being—workers are far more likely to keep using their trackers, says Mary Cain, Sr. Director for Clinical Strategy at Jiff. And that, says Cain, holds true even after the official challenge periods end. “People might drop their level of activity a bit, but it remains higher than it was before the challenge.”
Not only that, but Jiff’s data suggests that corporate step challenges and the like also tend to increase employee use of wellness offerings that have little to do with fitness trackers, from pre-diabetes nutritional counseling to programs that focus on back pain.
Perhaps the biggest surprise? “When we looked at the data on a weekly basis, we found these little dips at the end of the week,” says Cain, who holds a master’s degree in public health from U.C. Berkeley and who has been doing disease management work for the past 15 years. Many people, it seems, were coming home from their job and taking off their trackers. “People have a work identity and they have a home-life identity,” she says. "And it may just be, in some cases, that it’s their work identity that’s encouraging them to be healthy. We need to translate that into their whole identity."