13 Ways to Decide if Wearables are Worth the Investment

Wearable devices are all the buzz in worksite wellness right now, especially with Target purchasing Fitbits for their 335,000 employees. If they are right for Target employees, they’re right for your employees right?  Maybe…maybe not.

Let me clarify that this post defines wearables as fitness or activity trackers. These are trackers like Fitbits, Jawbones, Garmin, etc.

Before I talk about it from an employer’s perspective, let me relate my experience as an employee who received a Fitbit from her employer last year.  I got my Fitbit and like many others, loved the thrill of hearing that 10,000 step vibration. I even walked around the house one night after my husband was already in bed and took a night walk (questionably safe) to get my steps in.

Even though I’m pretty active, I found it’s challenging to get 10,000 steps a day when you have an office job. The Fitbit made me get off my butt and take a walk to reach the goal.  This is why I loved the Fitbit. Yes, I said “loved”.

Once my Fitbit quit charging, they sent me one ASAP. I tried to get it synced to my phone but it kept recognizing my old Fitbit. Guess what? I gave up and quit wearing it. My husband has a similar story.

For me, the lessons learned from the Fitbit are still lasting. I realize I need to get up and walk more during the day and I’m not as active as I think.  For my husband, not so much.

So, as an employer, is it worth it to invest a considerable amount of money in these trackers?  Let’s go through a list of advantages and drawbacks before you add a wearable device to your worksite wellness program.

Advantages of an activity tracker:

The “Cool” Factor: Your employees will appreciate the gift even if you are just subsidizing the cost or if they are getting the cheapest version.

Automatic Feedback: Wearable devices have the ability to give employees real time feedback so they can do something about. You can look at your device, see if you are under performing on activity for the day and start moving.

Fun Challenges: The dashboard gives employees options to set up their own challenges or you can run a company wide one. This is a fun way to get a positive reaction and interest from employees.

Scalabilty: Many employers have employees scattered all over their state, the US or even globally. Having employees connected through their fitness tracker eliminates the need to be in person, which isn’t possible for many employers.  

Revival of a Tired Wellness Program: Let’s face it, it’s easy to run out of fun ideas and your wellness program can get a bit boring.  Adding free or subsidized activity trackers can liven up your program and get employees excited again.

Create a “fit” group identity for tracker wearers.  Hey, you have a Fitbit just like me.  That’s a great reason to strike up a conversation a fellow employee who you don’t know.  Working on a similar goal gets people talking about their device and the many steps they are taking towards better health.  It’s always wonderful to hear employees talking about their fitness in an excited way instead of the dreaded tone of guilt.

Despite these advantages, there are some drawbacks of purchasing activity trackers to consider:

Cost: Although fitness trackers are cheap when compared to the cost of health insurance for your employees, it can kill a wellness budget in a hot second.  Fitbit in particular requires the employer to subsidize a percentage of the device and if you have a lot of employees, the cost may be difficult to justify to your CEO.  Also, the dashboard is around $7,000 per year (or is at the time of this post) and you really need the dashboard to get employees involved.

Abandonment rate: A recent survey found that after about six months of use, one-third of U.S. consumers don’t use their wearable devices.  That’s about how long I lasted with mine.

It’s not the magic bullet: Although an activity tracker may help your employees get up and moving more, it won’t magically make your employees healthy and lower health care costs.  You still have to incorporate other resources into your wellness program.

Not everyone will want one: As cool as you think an activity tracker is, 100% of your employees will not want one.  This could actually be an advantage if you are trying to watch your budget.

Privacy concerns: Some people are skeptics by nature and you’ll need to ensure employees who has access to their data and what you are doing with it.

Addiction: I’m using this heavy word a bit lightly here but if you’ve owned an activity tracker, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It’s the reason why you walk circles around your house while the rest of the family is sleeping or you get pissed if you went on a run without your tracker.  Tracking means competing with someone (even if it’s yourself) and that’s only sustainable for so long.

Motivation: You are going to reach the employees ready to make a change about their health while the ones that aren’t ready will pass on the opportunity.  That’s fine not to dwell on those that aren’t motivated but chances are they would have joined you in a less expensive exercise challenge.

Here’s the million dollar question….does it increase exercise?  Truth is, we don’t really know. There is minimal research around these devices but one small study in older women found that they may increase exercise more than a pedometer (at least during the 16 week study).  We are working with an employer group that is starting a fitness tracker challenge now so I’ll let you know the results.

Bottom line: unless you have a well built wellness strategy that includes other resources for your employees, then fitness trackers are probably not worth the investment UNLESS you have extra money to spend and one or more of the advantages above applies to your worksite.