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Mobile health applications: Should companies use them to track employee behaviour?

Mobile health applications: Should companies use them to track employee behaviour?

Several multinationals have already begun using health monitoring apps in the workplace, writes Carole Khalife

As businesses of all types and sizes look for ways to counter rising healthcare costs, the mobile health revolution is starting to get its fair share of attention in the workplace. Statistics vary, but global size estimates already put the market in the tens of billions, with strong growth anticipated in the years ahead.

And these are solutions that are being very well received. A recent survey among mobile health app end users revealed that 96 per cent believe they help improve quality of life, while 72 per cent of healthcare professionals say mobile apps effectively encourage patients to take more responsibility for their health.

There truly is an app for everything, from simple pedometers, to food diaries and fitness trackers, to apps that track breathing and heart rate. Information transfer is also a major advantage, and there are a number of applications that allow users to share medical information directly with physicians. On the truly revolutionary front, there are even apps that can be “taught” to sense the onset of illness or stress.

There are countless examples of big businesses incorporating these types of applications into their workplace wellness schemes – Google, Apple, and Target to name a few. But to be clear, mobile health application are certainly not just for big companies with deep pockets.

With that in mind, here’s a look at four great examples of health apps (from the literally hundreds of thousands of mobile app solutions available today), focusing on their potential use in the workplace.

1. Fitbit

It’s fair to say that these guys are the biggest on the scene right now. Their mobile apps and wearable devices form part of the wellness packages of a host of organisations from all industries, including British Petroleum, Adobe and Bank of America.

Another company who recently turned to Fitbit to bolster its employee wellness package is American retail giant Target – who gave wearable fitness trackers to over 300,000 of its employees in a bid to improve worker fitness and bring down healthcare costs.

For those of you who have not yet heard of Fitbit, it works by tracking a user’s daily activity and delivering the data to an accompanying app. The idea is it helps you monitor your movement over the course of a day or a period (week, month, year), providing vital information such as distance travelled, calories burned, heart rate, and so on.

And there is actually a specific corporate package which gives employers access to a dashboard of information, allowing companies to get a snapshot of how active their workforce is on the whole.

Many companies who have implemented Fitbit wellness schemes have reported substantial cost savings, including US-based information technology consulting company Appirio, which said the Fitbit programme helped them reduce employee healthcare costs by 6 per cent after just one year of use.

2. HAPILABS and the HAPIfork

When it comes to health and well-being, exercise is just one part of the puzzle, and in many cases physical activity is largely futile if our diet and nutrition are not also on point – particularly when it comes to weight loss, which is the main aim of many exercise regimes.

Hong Kong based tech company HAPILABS aims to bring both nutrition and fitness together in their unique mobile health offering. The app is more than just an activity tracker, allowing users to log and track a host of activities that are vital to health and fitness, including exercise data, sleep patterns and relaxation time. There is also an option to keep a food diary.

However, it is the unique HAPIfork device where this particular package truly reveals its quirky uniqueness. By eating with the stylish electronic fork, users are encouraged to be mindful of their eating habits, as the device can track how fast and how much an individual is eating (if you are eating too fast an indicator light pops on).

Now I’m not suggesting you replace the pantry forks with the HAPIfork, but the overall solutions offered by HAPILAB can provide your employees with a user-friendly dashboard that delivers an overall picture of lifestyle, fitness and nutrition habits.

3. Endomondo Sports Tracker

Fitness trackers are a great way to track the activity of your staff, but they are no good whatsoever if your workforce has trouble getting the motivation to get active in the first place. This is clearly an issue many in the business world are having, as a recent Career Builder survey found that 41 per cent of employees have gained weight while working at their current job, while those in high-stress or sedentary environments have even higher rates of weight gain.

That’s where Endomondo comes in. Endomondo considers its solution to be more than a simple sports tracker, dubbing it a “mobile personal trainer and social motivator”.

Currently used by companies around the world, including Harley Davidson, Kimberley Clark and Coca-Cola, this app not only lets employees track and analyse their workouts and performance, but it also allows users to send each other real-time pep-talks while they exercise, as well as share maps of favoured routes for jogging. Employees can also challenge their co-workers to fitness challenges straight through the app.

4. Hotseat

We’ve all heard about the dangers of being seated most of our days – day in and day out, year after year. This is where Hotseat comes in.

The app sends nudges to employees’ phones throughout the day to encourage what it calls “personalised mini-breaks” in the form of two-minute fitness sessions that can be performed on the spot. Users can pick from a selection of different exercises to perform on a rotating daily cycle throughout the week, and the best part is that the app syncs with each individual’s calendar to only send a nudge when a user is available (meaning you’re not going to get away with the “I’m in a meeting” excuse).

Employees can then compete with each other to achieve their fitness goals, while employers can track both individual and company progress and set company or department-wide competitive challenges to motivate and encourage all staff to get involved.

While overall fitness is important to the makers of Hotseat, the company says its ultimate aim is to help lower the risk of common non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and kidney disease, by encouraging frequent activity each and every day.

The revolution is upon us

While the current common practice is to use this smart technology to encourage an active workforce and reward health and fitness achievements, the thought process is now shifting towards using them for the purpose of employee health accountability. That is, are these solutions not the ultimate way to hold insured staff responsible for not properly safeguarding their own health and well-being?

We know that the main diseases and conditions that are driving up healthcare costs to unsustainable levels are the “lifestyle” ones. They are caused by poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and a number of other unhealthy lifestyle choices. The only solution to the healthcare cost issue, in other words, is to change behaviour.

So perhaps a big part of the solution lies in monitoring employee health behaviour with these new tools available to us, and penalising accordingly. Related to this in fact are recent reports of life insurance firms offering discounts to companies using fitness trackers. Basically, the fitter an employee gets, the more their premium decreases.

Over the past years, mobile health and fitness has been the fastest growing app category, and there is no slowdown expected. And the reason for this is really quite simple: they are effective. In the corporate environment we can expect to see a massive increase in the use of mobile health devices and applications in the years and decades ahead, as these solutions will have a key role to play in the battle against rising healthcare costs the world over.

Carole Khalife is head of Human Capital and Benefits at Al Futtaim Willis.

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