Colin Barnes: Could mHealth technology transform wellbeing?

Transforming employee health and wellbeing is a challenge, with many programmes failing to deliver the desired results.

It is easy to see why traditional health and wellbeing programmes do not always work. A one-size-fits-all approach is great for some employees, but can potentially alienate others. Similarly, offering a wide range of activities can be difficult to promote, reducing the effectiveness of a health and wellbeing strategy.

By offering personalised mobile health (mHealth) technology, however, employers can revitalise even the most sluggish of workplace programmes.

Why provide mHealth technology?

Taking workplace health and wellbeing to a new level, mHealth technology allows an organisation to offer a personalised programme to every employee. Delivered as an app, the employee chooses exactly which areas they want to focus on, from physical and emotional health through to financial wellbeing.

Recommendations are based on an employee’s data and preferences. For example, if an individual wants to lose a few kilos ahead of a summer holiday, by feeding in personal details such as their weight, fitness level, food preferences, and linking it up to other health and fitness trackers, an mHealth app can design a programme to help them achieve their goal.

In many ways, this is like hiring a personal trainer instead of going to the gym; rather than try and work out what equipment or weights to use alone, a professional will assess their client’s circumstances and work out exactly what they need to do.

Employees can also choose how they interact with the app, selecting the areas they see, and how often it sends them information and nudges. Being able to personalise interaction ensures they get health and wellbeing support when they need it.

For instance, if someone knows they need to be nagged to take a break from their computer screen, the app will remind them to get up for a wander. Similarly, if they want to feel less tired in the morning, they can receive information about sleep hygiene and a gentle reminder to get some shut-eye when it is time for bed.

Transforming health and wellbeing engagement

The fact that mHealth apps are on an employee’s smartphone can also make them more effective. Unlike a poster on the back of the toilet door, or calorie information next to the salads in the canteen, key information is at an employee’s fingertips.

This helps to transform the health and wellbeing programme from a workplace chore to a lifestyle choice that staff are more likely to follow. They might, for example, look up some healthy recipes before doing the weekly shop on a Saturday morning, or find out what stretches will stop the aches after an afternoon playing football with the kids.

Being able to personalise an employee’s health programme in this way has many benefits. As well as improving the chances that they will stick with their new healthy habits, it is also more likely to reach individuals who would not normally engage with a traditional health and wellbeing initiative.

Whether through curiosity, a healthy dose of peer pressure or simply because they can use the app in the comfort of their own home, mHealth technology can make it easier for the more reluctant employees to engage with their health and wellbeing. Furthermore, being offered a personalised programme that is relevant to their health and fitness levels is particularly beneficial to those who are less likely to engage with an off-the-shelf offering.

Being told to run five miles can be very intimidating, and therefore off-putting, to someone who has not participated in physical activity since school. However, whether they are new to exercise or a regular at the gym, using mHealth technology to deliver a personalised approach can help empower employees to take control of their health, drive changes in behaviour and transform the wellbeing of the workforce.

Colin Barnes is director, propositions and development at Aon