In corporate wellness programs, wearables take a step forward

April 15, 2014, 3:00 PM UTC
The San Francisco startup Buffer encourages its employees to track their wellness using Jawbone’s Up wristband.

FORTUNE — At times, it seems like the companies that make wearable gadgets have more interest in them than their customers do. Even as companies with little in common — global sportswear company Nike (NKE), printer-maker Epson, software giant Google (GOOG) — rush to offer portable devices that track fitness metrics and other data, several recent studies point to a lack of long-term consumer appeal. According to the consulting firm Endeavour Partners, more than half of those who have bought a wearable device in the United States have stopped using it.

Predictions for sales of wearables remain strong, but there are clearly obstacles to be overcome. (And no, we’re not talking about the barroom altercations.) One major factor that could help boost adoption comes from an unlikely place: the workplace. A growing number of companies are issuing tracking devices to employees, giving employees a means of tracking their own fitness and allowing managers to keep tabs on the health of the firm as a whole.

Changing behavior

One of the biggest corporate users of wearables? The gas and oil giant BP (BP), which has partnered with StayWell Health Management to offer employees the use of a Fitbit tracker, which measures the number of steps taken every day, among other things. A million-step challenge is one of the many facets of the BP Wellness Program, encouraging employees to make physical activity part of their daily routine in order to improve their health and earn “wellness points” along the way. The idea: BP benefits from a healthier workforce both in terms of daily productivity and also in the context of rising health care premiums, and employees benefit from the health effects of regular activity.

The multinational software company Autodesk (ADSK) also issues Fitbit devices as optional extras for its employees, a practice it began in 2011. More than half of the company’s workforce in the U.S. took up the offer when it was initially introduced, according to Autodesk spokeswoman Alexandra Constantine, who says the move has had a real impact on the company’s employees as data prompted changes in their behavior.

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“Walking became increasingly more important and replaced less healthy activities such as snack breaks or stationary commutes,” Constantine says. “This was a big source of conversation in the office and inspired a little friendly competition.” Once employees began charting the total steps they took each day, staff members started parking farther away from the office, walking to work rather than driving, going the long way round for meetings or bathroom breaks, and even taking walking distances into consideration when booking hotels for business trips.

The devices are part of a larger employee wellness program at Autodesk that includes massages, weight-loss programs, subsidized gym membership, and various other resources. Since the company signed on to the Global Corporate Challenge in 2012, improvements have been seen in terms of employee health, camaraderie, sleep quality, relaxation, and productivity. The aim is to “engage, educate, and excite so [that] employees take responsibility for their own health,” Constantine says. “There are some CEO staff sponsors, so it’s coming from the top down.”

The San Francisco social media startup Buffer issues Jawbone Up devices, another kind of fitness tracker that is worn on the wrist, to new employees as a matter of course. Everyone in the company receives access to an Up wristband and is encouraged to share the collected data with other team members. For Buffer, the effort is part of a larger open and transparent philosophy that extends as far as making salaries and equity shares public on the web. Employees are encouraged to set goals and share progress with other Buffer staff, whether it involves setting aside time for reading (Buffer staff also get a free Amazon Kindle e-reader) or observing the same bedtime every night.

“While we each have very unique and separate improvements, there are also a few things that are basically true for all humans, and that is that we could always do with more exercise and better quality sleep,” says Buffer’s chief happiness officer (yes, that’s her real title) Carolyn Kopprasch. “The modern trackers help us with both of these … we’re transparent with the data we track. The intention is to help us base our conversations around these things and serve as each other’s cheerleaders.”

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As for the data served up by the trackers, there’s no obligation to share and no end-of-year annual review to check if you’ve been jogging as often as you said you would. “We each choose to share whatever we feel comfortable with,” Kopprasch says. “Most of us share our sleep and steps, and some track food and caffeine intake and mood as well … Other than supporting our culture of self-improvement, the data is not used for anything at this time. We don’t track the data in any more organized fashion than the Up app displays, and we don’t base any team decisions around it.”

The team at Buffer has been walking farther and sleeping better since the fitness bands were first introduced in March last year, Kopprasch says, but the program has had other benefits, too. “As a team, it has helped us base our conversations and culture around self-improvement,” she says. “Since we’re all in it together, we speak very openly and easily about steps and sleep. I believe that this spills over into our other individual improvements, since we’re in the habit of talking openly about our goals.”

Measuring impact

Together with Buffer’s other transparency measures, the use of fitness trackers provides an automatic screening facility for job applications, too. If you’re put off by the thought of sharing and working in this way, Kopprasch notes, then you might not fit into Buffer’s culture in the first place.

On the other hand, it’s certainly easier for a startup like Buffer to encourage data collection and sharing among its 15 employees than for a larger corporation to roll out a scheme among thousands of employees. In an atmosphere where everyone doesn’t know each other’s name, there may be resistance to the idea of fitness tracking and data sharing even on an informal basis.

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The implications for staff who don’t want their bosses to know how little sleep they’re getting or how infrequently they hit the gym can be frightening to some. In corporate schemes in place today, tracked fitness statistics aren’t included in performance reviews or company promotion policies. But it’s not inconceivable that they could be in the future. One day, it’s possible that you might miss out on a job because you didn’t log enough steps.

Return on investment can be tricky to judge too, unless data is carefully collected and analyzed. A healthier and happier workforce leads to fewer sick days, increased productivity, and a better working environment, but it’s not always easy to measure the impact a $100 wrist strap has had on any part of this equation. As in the consumer marketplace, wearables face a challenge to not only collect data accurately but to analyze it intelligently too.

More than 13 million wearable fitness tracking devices are expected to be incorporated into employee wellness programs within the next five years, according to estimates from ABI Research. In many ways, it’s a natural progression for companies invested in the health of their workforce — and in firms where the tech is already in place, the benefits have been overwhelmingly positive: clearer goals, proactive approaches to health, and employees who are thinking about improving their lifestyle on a regular basis. Not a bad first step.

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