Wearables are becoming increasingly popular among people of all ages as technology gets more integrated into our everyday surroundings and become necessary resources for helping us live our lives.  Wearables have the capability to enhance our lives by making some tasks or functions easier (such as monitoring fitness or nutrition tracking), and can even help us perform necessary, daily tasks (reminding a user when to take pills, or to move after being sedentary for too long).  So what exactly are wearables?

Wearable Technology (Wearables) is any technology that is worn by the user.  They collect data about the user or provide real-time information for the user about themselves and their environment.  Some examples of wearables are blood pressure monitors, pedometers, accelerometers, body temperature monitors, heart rate monitors, sleep monitors, and even mood or emotion monitors.

How do wearables fit in at work?

While wearables have a role in people’s personal lives, they also have a clear benefit from having a role in the workplace.  Wearables are nifty gadgets but they can also be an essential tool for monitoring and evaluating physical health and psychological well-being.  Wearables are already establishing their presence in the workplace, with fitness monitors like Fitbit, Apple smartwatch, and Jawbone already common practice in some organization wellness programs.  Wearables such as armbands that track movement are used in warehouse workers to track fulfillment and efficiency.  Other wearables that monitor head movements or posture can give feedback on how alert an individual is.  This type of information is great for both the employee and employer to know about work performance.  Wearables show great potential to assist individuals and organizations to promote health and increase desired outcomes in the workplace like increased satisfaction, happiness, and productivity.

Wearables’ role in worker physical health and psychological well-being.

Many of these devices do more than just collect data to be analyzed later – they provide instant feedback to individuals to make them aware of their performance or health status or mental state.  Individuals can be motivated to change behavior when confronted with instant feedback about their sedentary time, sleep duration, social connectivity, heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels, and emotional health.

We know from psychology research that awareness alone of being monitored can cause individuals to react – a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect.  People will perform better at work if they know they are being observed.  The effect, however, seems to fade with time.  How, then, can bringing wearables into the workplace have a lasting, positive effect?  A possible solution is integrating wearables and performance observation into the company culture.  By changing the culture, an organization does more than just make health an option – it makes health a core value.  And core values build the identity of an organization and, consequently, the identity of its workers.  People are more inclined to work towards goals that they feel they are a part of and that they will benefit from.   Another possible solution to ensure wearable participation and responsiveness to observation is to provide incentives that help behavior changes start and stick.  Adjusting goals and rewards for individuals could help remind the worker that there is always room for personal development and greater performance.  Not only that, continued feedback lets workers know that their work is important to the organization.  HealthyWorkplaces has found these features to be essential to worker psychological well-being and positive outcomes.

There are certainly some unintended side-effects of increasing the use of wearables in the workplace.  Having workers “plugged in” constantly can be a problem for some, especially those who use technology as an integral part of their work.  But at the forefront of concerns is worker privacy – how the data collected by these wearables will be used and protected as personal information.  In many cases, it is up to individual organizations to create policies on collecting and using wearable data that also follows the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requirements to ensure data remains private and secure.  These are mostly problems that can be avoided by careful understanding of the context of the worker in their workplace and the nature of work itself.

As technology continually changes, organizations will need to evaluate their place in the workplace environment.  In the workplace today, wearables are emerging as a useful tool for worker physical health and psychological well-being.  They bring health and well-being information to individuals’ fingertips and provide a platform for positive behavior change and a stronger health culture in organizations.

 

To learn more about technology in the workplace, you can view our recent report on Health Technology in the Workplace: Leveraging technology to protect and improve worker health here.