HR and benefits leaders charged with balancing employee needs with organizational goals often find themselves asking employees to take more responsibility for their day-to-day health and well-being. For example, employees with chronic health conditions are identified and encouraged to seek treatment and adhere to doctors’ orders such as taking prescribed medicines and making — and keeping — follow-up appointments. Those at risk for chronic conditions are asked to make lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking or getting more exercise.

And, more and more, health-related smartphone apps and wearables are becoming a part of those efforts.

According to the Willis Towers Watson “2016 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey,” 59% of employers now communicate and educate employees about health and wellness through apps and portals. Usage is expected to increase to 93% by 2018.

A concurrent survey of more than 5,000 U.S. employees found that wearables and other technologies that promote health and consumerism are gaining traction. A majority (59%) of employee participants in Willis Towers Watson’s survey reported some level of technology use to manage their health. The following technologies were cited by participants as important/very important or moderately important in managing their health:
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  • Wearable devices to monitor fitness activity: 54%
  • Apps to track diet: 53%
  • Apps to monitor a health condition: 48%
  • Online forums on health issues: 44%
  • Apps to monitor sleep/relaxation: 43%

Before you roll technology out
However, before you ask your employees to adopt technologies to manage their health, we advise HR leaders to take care that the apps and wearables they’re providing work as advertised. If not, employees might use them for a short period of time and then abandon them. Or, they might not use them at all. Worst of all, a bad experience may keep employees from using the next one that can help them. So, the first challenge is deciding which products to evaluate.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. According to reports, in 2016 there were more than 165,000 health-related apps that run on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. Add to that some 40 categories of wearable devices, each with multiple vendors and products. While a large majority of these products are marketed primarily to consumers, vendors are increasingly targeting employers because they represent long-term, high-volume sales, and because employers are looking for more consumer-grade solutions in hopes of engaging employees in their health.

The second challenge is to thoroughly and rigorously test products before they are deployed widely to employees. The importance of comprehensive testing cannot be overestimated. The stories our employer-clients tell us about their experiences evaluating apps or wearables tend to fall into one of two categories: 1) a vendor has either delighted them with a “wow” experience or 2) disappointed them with a miserable experience. In addition, they tell us that choosing brand-name products from proven market leaders — including their health plans and PBMs — is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, reliability or an engaging user experience.

Even when a product lives up to its hype, it might not meet the needs of your organization or integrate well with your wellness program goals or incentives.

For example, one of our employer-clients saw a need to help employees with stress reduction and mindfulness. After hosting several webinars on the topic, and learning of high interest from employees, our client decided to offer a limited pilot (50 seats) of a leading stress reduction app to determine how employees would engage with and use the app. The pilot was also designed to evaluate if engagement could be sustained.

Our client was surprised, however, when participation in the pilot was lower than expected; not all 50 seats were filled. In addition, of those who did participate, many lost interest quickly and stopped using the app. With this information, the organization reconsidered its approach, deciding to test two different approaches in two simultaneous pilots and compare results.

There is another component of testing that we recommend to our employer-clients — one that doesn’t always come to mind: Include their HR professionals in the testing process so they can experience firsthand what they are asking of employees. In other words, when it comes to apps and wearables, HR pros should not only “talk the talk,” but “walk the walk.”

The value of having HR staff test new apps and wearables is that they learn what it’s really like for an employee to track medication compliance or food consumption every day on an app. Something that seems easy on the first day might turn out to be cumbersome over time. And using a fitness tracker or smart watch for a few months might provide insight into why employees might abandon them after a short period of time, or what features they would keep coming back for. Experiencing products firsthand before wide deployment might make the difference between wasting time and money on short-term tech toys versus making justifiable investments in long-term, valuable technologies.

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For these reasons, HR leaders should designate people in their departments to participate in these tests. Even better, they should participate themselves, or walk the walk. In situations where our employer-clients have done this, here are some things they have learned:

  • Apps and wearables can have bugs or glitches that vendors can fix before a broad employee rollout
  • Even minor flaws that cannot be fixed can sometimes be overcome by providing employees with education and training
  • Sometimes the most beneficial aspects of a product aren’t the ones that vendors promote; a thorough testing phase can help an organization decide what to tell employees about its usage and benefits
  • Sometimes products simply don’t live up to vendor hype and should not be adopted

Despite the precautions, remember that there are a wide-ranging number of apps that employers can use to positively influence employees to change and monitor their behavior. The technology is rapidly advancing so it’s up to you to investigate the myriad options thoroughly before buying. At the end of the day, you’ll want to be sure the ones you select work as advertised and are a good match with your organization and your employees.

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Steve Blumenfield

Steve Blumenfield

Blumenfield is senior consultant and director, strategic opportunities and alliances, at Willis Towers Watson.