Karen Taylor: The role of technology in managing workplace health

This article is supplied by Deloitte.

Traditionally, physical health and safety have formed the core of workplace wellbeing practice, focused on physical risks such as falls, hazardous chemicals and noise.

Key points 

  • The prevalence of long-term health conditions and the impact on sickness absence rates and employees’ caring responsibilities are driving employers to use mobile health technology to engage employees in their health and wellbeing. 
  • Technology enables highly distributed, mobile and increasingly dispersed employees to be informed and engaged partners in their own healthcare.
  • But there is currently only limited understanding of how technology can support employees’ health and wellbeing.
Karen Taylor, Deloitte

The concept of workforce wellbeing has evolved over the past 20 years, with employers increasingly focused on tackling stress and promoting attributes such as resilience, coping, self-esteem, self-efficacy, optimism, hopefulness and social integration. 

The ageing UK population is helping to focus employers’ minds on the future prevalence of long-term health conditions, which is costly for the state and affects employers through sickness leave and caring responsibilities.

Consequently, the government has been encouraging employees and employers to take wellbeing more seriously, and to develop a more preventative approach to workplace health and wellbeing. 

In response, employers are increasingly looking to mobile health technology to engage staff in their health and wellbeing. 

Engaged and healthy employees are more productive and more likely to stay with their current employer, which is good news for organisations focused on talent retention amid the increasingly stiff competition for highly skilled staff. 

Meanwhile, the increasing popularity of wearable technology and the ‘quantified self’ movement (the trend of using technology to measure daily activities) is increasing demand from employees for workplace health and wellbeing services.

Technology helps support mobile workforces 

Technology enables highly distributed, mobile and increasingly dispersed employees to be informed and engaged partners in their own healthcare in two ways.

Firstly, using multiple communication channels such as mobile applications, social media and web portals, which can be accessed on the move, can increase the reach of information and instil cultural change.

Secondly, combining technology with behavioural science makes lifestyle management programmes easier, more convenient and more sustainable, as well as providing incentives to change.  

Incentive schemes that encourage staff to choose healthy behaviours, such as using the stairs instead of the lift or simply walking more each day, are now linking with wearable technology, such as pedometers, which provide constant feedback on performance.

Employers can engage employees further still by setting them personal goals and creating recognition schemes offering rewards for good performance. 

Sustaining staff interest can be challenging

However, there are a number of challenges around the use of workplace health technology.

Firstly, technology alone will not engage all employees or guarantee the scale and impact that employers hope their initiatives will achieve.

Secondly, data confidentiality and privacy must be factored into employers’ risk management strategies, along with the potential cost of technology to a business.

Many employers may need to be persuaded of their role in, and responsibility for, investing in health and wellbeing initiatives, especially given that the cost of dealing with ill-health in the UK tends to fall on individuals and the NHS. Employer-sponsored health plans’ link to reduced costs is not as evident here as it is in, say, the US.

Strategy planning

Employers should start small and simple. By understanding what works and setting clear performance indicators that are relevant to their business strategy, employers can create buy-in from relevant stakeholders for larger-scale change.

Achieving impact requires board-level engagement with dedicated health champions throughout the business, thereby maintaining focus, building health and wellness into corporate culture and providing encouragement to employees.

The smart use of social media or other digital channels to communicate an employee’s ambitions and achievements can create social contracts (which extend beyond employment contracts and consider the treatment of staff in the workplace) that encourage longer-term engagement and persuade others to follow suit.

Employers might even include wellness objectives in performance evaluations of their business leaders.

But there is currently only limited understanding of how technology can support staff health and wellbeing, and this is likely to remain the case until employee demand, shaped by government and new technology, drives the development of future workplace health and wellbeing platforms.

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As these platforms become even more personalised and integrated into employees’ daily lives, the scene will be set for a truly preventative and cost-effective approach to workplace health and wellbeing.

Karen Taylor is research director of the Centre for Health Solutions in the UK at Deloitte