New Age of Health Surveillance in the Workplace

In an era where data is king, companies are showing an increasing interest in the health of their employees. This might sound unsettling, but it’s not about your body in a creepy sense; it’s about your health. Companies want to know all about it.

The Rise of Health Monitoring

Does your company run a fitness program? Have you been asked to download a health monitoring app? Are you made to wear a fitness tracker or patch? If the answer is yes, welcome to the club of constant health surveillance. This is a rapidly growing phenomenon in the workplace. Workforce health is a valuable source of intelligence.

Wear a sleek health monitor on your wrist, and your company can scoop up volumes of highly sensitive data like how many steps you walk, where you cover the distance, what is your heart rate, how much or when you sleep, even how well you sleep. Imagine taking a fake sick leave, but your boss finding out that you walked 15,000 steps that day. As I said, it’s creepy and in this case, maybe even funny.

The New Age of Health Surveillance in the Workplace

The Lure of Health Monitoring

Ideally, employees voluntarily sign up for this monitoring. They’re lured by cash or reduced premiums on insurance. For instance, IBM offers $150 if workers meet health targets. United Healthcare offers $1,500 a year in reimbursements on health benefit plans.

But then some company policies give others a run for their money, quite literally. It happened in China recently. A Chinese company replaced its year-end bonus with a health rewards system where your bonus will depend on how much you run. If you run 50 km a month, you get the full bonus worth a month’s salary. Any lesser running and the bonus reduces. But if you manage to hit the 100 km mark in a month, you get 130% of the bonus.

Critics say this plan is using bonuses as a bargaining chip where the staff has to work twice as much to earn the same bonus. But according to the company, this policy will promote healthy lifestyles. After all, more active workers have higher productivity. Regular exercise can improve memory and reduce stress. So it’s a win-win situation. Workers are healthier, and companies benefit from their increased performance. Plus, they get to keep insurance costs down.

The Corporate Wellness Market

The idea is laudable and it has picked up. A decade ago, about 2,000 companies offered fitness trackers. By 2014, this rose to 10,000. And today, the global corporate wellness market is worth $53 billion. Most companies with over 500 employees offer such trackers, especially in America and Europe.

But despite this boom, let me ask the golden question: does monitoring employees actually help? Do such programs work? The evidence is mixed at best. Most studies say they do not help. There’s only so much money one can offer that will make you unwillingly run for hours after work.

The Ethical Dilemma

And that’s not the only problem here. Let’s assume most companies have a genuine concern for employees. Even so, this is a major privacy issue, also an ethical one. Should your employer be able to track your sleep? Should they be involved in your private life? Also, does your boss really need to make you a better person?

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea because they rarely know where the data goes or how it is used. What if employees with health conditions are denied promotions? What if your data is sold to insurance companies? So many questions, not enough clarity.

When it comes to wellness plans, companies have a fine line to tread. They have to boost employee health without crossing an ethical boundary. It helps to have an independent third party on board, so an outsider can track employee data under heavy privacy guidelines.

Also, employees need a healthier workplace. They need a better work-life balance, not a pedometer around their wrist. After all, who needs bosses tracking their every move? People already have social media for that.

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