“We believe that as health care costs continue to rise and as employers continue to seek ways to keep their employees active, engaged, and productive, more employers will implement or enhance their corporate wellness programs.”
Am I the only one who thinks that employee-sponsored wearables and wellness programs are a bad idea? It smacks of Big Brother surveillance, only this time BB is also paying you a salary. The dream of the twenty-first century worker is to have the flexibility and creative freedom to pursue fulfilling work that they can balance with their personal responsibilities and interests. The remote, distributed workplace is part of that dream for a lot of jobseekers and employees, and with good reason. Working from home, especially if it comes with the ability to choose your own schedule, is a tremendous perk, and one still elusive to most full-time employees.
But what if one of the other benefits is a wearable that also tracks your sleep, physical activity, heart rate, and a number of other biometric data that, previously, only your doctor was privy to? There are already employers who dangle that carrot to their employees, ostensibly as an incentive to maintain their fitness and health in an otherwise competitive, stressful industry. Is it really as benign as it seems?
Once upon a time, I worked for an employer who offered a free wellness program. It included giveaways like pedometers and water bottles, and at the end of a certain period, if your activity sheet (which the company distributed) recorded at least one activity a day, your name was added to a drawing for a couple of high-value prizes. I think one of them was actually a laptop, which in 2007 was definitely a big deal.
Execution, though, was inconsistent at best, and humiliating and painful at worse. Case in point: they brought in a couple of volunteer paramedics to the office to take blood samples from each of us and also measure our BMI. The paramedic attempted to draw blood from my arms at least a half-dozen times. He had such horrible technique that by the time he was done, I had a 7-inch discolored bruise on my upper arm that lasted weeks. I fared better than others, though. One of my co-workers actually had blood drawn from her fist – that’s how bad that paramedic was. I still cringe thinking about the pain she must’ve felt.
The worst part, though, was when he measured my BMI (Body Mass Index). He used both a tape measure and calipers, and for some odd reason he came up with a BMI of 31. Thirty. One.
Note that I am 5’3″ and, at the time, weighed about 125 lbs. While that’s actually a few pounds more than my ideal weight (I have a relatively small frame and don’t hold extra weight well), I don’t know how anyone could argue that I was obese. All my doctors reassured me that I was well within a healthy range. But 31 is right there under the “Obesity” category of the BMI scale.
The number was duly noted and was included in my health assessment, and god knows how my employer used it. Several of us complained to HR about our experiences with the paramedic, and even the HR manager gasped when she saw the massive bruise on my arm. I doubt anything came out of it — I suspect our health files ended up in some dusty warehouse somewhere, kind of like that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Still, I’ve been suspicious of wellness programs ever since, and more so when technology raises the stakes by introducing even more intrusive means of tracking intimate employee data. It’s enough that my employer gets my intellect, my physical energy, a big chunk of mindshare for the majority of my waking hours. I’d like to reserve the privacy of my body and my health just for myself, my doctor, and when necessary, close family members. I hardly think it’s too much to ask that my employer stay out of that part of my life.