How wearable technology is transforming wellbeing in the workplace
From watches to smart helmets and goggles, wearables are playing a growing role in helping employees stay healthier and perform better at work
As more companies focus on improving employee health and wellness, wearable technology is becoming a means for employers to monitor and support how people feel at work.
While smart watches and fitness bands that track data like heart rate and steps taken are most common in the workplace – due to high uptake in personal life – other devices are also emerging.
Smart patches can monitor health indicators such as heart rate variability, blood pressure and posture, while in warehouses and on construction sites, smart goggles augment workers’ vision with information overlays that aid decision-making. Smart helmets and full-body suits can improve safety by tracking vital stats on workers’ physical condition.
“We invest so much in the healthy, productive workplace – such as sensors measuring occupancy, air quality and movement – yet the most important metric is its impact on individuals,” says Andrew O’Donnell, UK Real Estate and Workplace Director at JLL. “Employers are recognising this and seeing wearables as a way to understand whether and how they can improve employee wellness.”
A growing market
The wearable technology market is currently valued at US$37 billion (£26.9 billion), according to Grand View Research and is forecast to hit 1 billion connected wearable devices by 2022.
Wearables that facilitate social distancing have become popular during the pandemic. Bluetooth-enabled tags or company apps buzz to let people know they’re too close to others, while safety passes at mining giant Anglo American flash red if employees stand within 1.5 metres of one another.
Other devices collect data on sleep habits, daily activity levels and other markers that encourage employees to consider their health, and in turn give employers a better understanding of how employees feel.
“Wearables contribute to the big picture on employee experience, enabling a more holistic approach to supporting and driving employee engagement and performance,” says Paul Smith, Chief Strategy Officer at ART Health Solutions. “If a company is serious about improving wellbeing, they need to consider what occurs outside the workplace too.”
As companies adopt remote working policies, wearables can help employers understand how staff wellness fluctuates across different workspaces.
The Moodbeam wristband, for example, enables remote workers to report their emotional state as either positive or negative. Bosses can check in via the app’s dashboard and react accordingly.
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ART Health, meanwhile, uses a combination of online employee surveys, cognitive performance tests and data from workplace sensors, along with that from wearables, to measure ongoing wellbeing and performance.
“By monitoring data, employers can gain a new understanding about the impact of hybrid work models on wellbeing and performance,” says Smith.
Data on employees’ health and activity could be used to trigger alerts such as encouraging regular screen breaks or moving more during the working day, simple steps which have marked benefits on employee satisfaction and productivity. Employers might implement wellness incentive programs that reward employees for achieving certain fitness goals.
Challenges to work through
The use of data from wearables to shape workplace strategies, however, is largely in its infancy.
One challenge is that uptake of wearables – though rising – is still far from widespread, says O’Donnell.
Warehouses and construction sites, in particular, don’t always have the digital infrastructure to support IoT devices such as wearables.
“In warehousing and construction, wearable technology enhances equipment to boost efficiency and save time and money, but the cost and accessibility of implementation are still hurdles for many firms,” says Anna Szlagor, from the Research and Consulting team at JLL.
Although data created by wearables is anonymised, privacy can also be a concern and barrier to uptake, especially in the context of employee health tracking.
“For companies to leverage the potential of wearables and the data they can deliver, setting a transparent data policy is paramount, as is making clear to employees what the benefits to the individual will be,” says Nick Whitten, Head of UK Living Research, JLL.
As wearables and related technologies such as augmented reality and IoT develop – and costs fall – workplaces will see greater benefits, predicts Szlagor.
Larger companies might incorporate medical-grade devices – such as blood glucose-detecting rings or electrocardiography patches – into occupational health programs, using anonymised data to alert employees when preventative care would be beneficial. Smart exoskeletons that enhance strength and mobility could support safe and efficient work environments in warehouses and on construction sites.
“As technologies like automation and AI become embedded throughout workplaces, wearables will enable us to interact with increasingly smart machinery, ushering in a future of work where humans can genuinely work with machines,” says Whitten.
Wearables could also transform how people interact with increasingly digital offices.
Smartwatches could replace phones as a seamless access pass to smart buildings, enabling employees to log into hot desks or customise temperature and lighting preferences without having to open their phones. The development of increasingly small, discreet devices is also likely to increase acceptance and in turn, the use of wearables in professional settings.
“When wearables are more embedded in the workplace, we’ll see a rise in such devices as a primary digital assistant platform,” says O’Donnell. “This is a strong growth area for businesses and wearables are an unobtrusive way to monitor data and nudge users when they have a meeting or alert to follow up on.
“It’s all part of the longer-term shift to the digitisation of the office.”