The health and wellbeing tech industry has exploded over the past year, but this expert thinks employers shouldn’t be so quick to jump on the bandwagon.
At first glance, they don’t seem so suspicious. They’re usually marketed as helpful gadgets. But with every new piece of employee wellbeing technology that hits the market, the conversation inevitably comes back to a question of privacy. Why do employers need such a granular look into their employees’ health? What is this information being used for? And what happens if it falls into the wrong hands?
Before COVID-19, interest in apps or wearable devices aimed at tracking physical and mental health was mostly relegated to fitness fanatics and heath gurus. During the pandemic, however, demand for these technologies in the workplace surged as employers worried about employee mental wellbeing, or wanted to monitor them for COVID-19 symptoms.
While the motivation for asking employees to use mood tracking apps or wear bio scanning devices is usually innocent, Dr Peter Holland, professor of Human Resource Management at Swinburne University, says employers should really pause before investing in anything that tracks employees’ private data.
“The key thing is, this technology wasn’t being pushed on employees before the pandemic so why do you need it now? The underlying issue is usually a lack of trust for remote employees,” says Holland.
HRM asked Holland to share his thoughts on three new pieces of wellbeing tech and offer up some less intrusive alternatives for those who are interested in getting a better read on employee wellbeing sentiment, but perhaps aren’t comfortable promoting the use of wearable tech in the workplace.
1. The mood tracking wristband
Moodbeam is a wristband that aims to make employees’ moods more visible in a remote workplace.
The band has two buttons, yellow for happy and blue for sad. When an employee presses one of these buttons, the information is sent to a mobile phone app and web interface where employers can view how that employee is feeling.
Interestingly, the original Moodbeam design anonymised the data collected from the bands, so rather than seeing how individual employees are feeling, the data would provide an overview of employee wellbeing. However, Moodbeam co-founder Christina Colmer McHugh told the BBC early trials indicated that employees wanted to be identified. One organisation that uses the device believes this is for the better as they were able to identify an employee who was struggling but would never have spoken up otherwise.
Holland, however, says the data the wristband provides is unlikely to be useful to employers.
“What if someone is sad because of an external thing happening in their life? Why does their employer need to know about it?” says Holland.
“Happy or sad is so contextual, and if it’s not impacting your work I don’t see why an employer needs to know about it.”
Holland believes employers that want to show they care about employee wellbeing should make an effort to implement initiatives that are actually known to address poor mental health, such as comprehensive EAP programs or yoga and fitness classes.
Of course, some employers would prefer to ‘track first, implement after’, but we know that one in five Australians experience mental illness, so the likelihood of someone in your organisation being affected by poor mental health is already high. Plus, preventative measures are always better than reactive ones.
“Rather than asking for personal information, it would be more appropriate to look at turnover or candidate attraction after implementing initiatives like this,” says Holland. This way you can get an accurate read on whether or not your initiative is having an impact.
2. The biosensor patch
The disposable biosensor patch, Lifesignals, wasn’t originally designed for the workplace.
Entrepreneur Surendar Magar wanted to create a way for health professionals to monitor patients remotely. However, when COVID-19 hit, employers took interest in the patch’s ability to check for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms, particularly for employees who need to be in the physical workplace.
“In the US, we’ve seen this kind of health data used against employees, so I would be very cautious of implementing anything like this,” says Holland.
According to Holland, some unscrupulous employers have forced out employees after discovering health issues such as high blood pressure or even pregnancy through blood tests.
He also suggests this information could be used to inform important workplace decisions, be that consciously or unconsciously.
“If an organisation is considering redundancies, do I want them to know what my heart rate is like? Could that factor into their decision even if I’m a model employee?”
If planning to collect such personal data, Holland says it’s important that employers be clear about why they’re collecting this specific data and how they plan to use it. Employees should also always have the option to opt out, and it needs to be made clear that they will not suffer any ramification if they do.
Collecting employee biometric data can be legally fraught. Holland points to what happened to an employee in Queensland who refused to provide his fingerprint for a new payroll system.
“His employer sacked him, but he went to the FWC and the full bench sided with him. They said, ‘You can’t be forced to give away that kind of data.’”
See HRM’s wrap-up of that case here.
3. The posture measuring cushion
Last year, Hong Kong-based technology company Health Boost designed a ‘smart’ cushion to monitor employee posture. The cushion was pitched to the employees as a health benefit, however, the cushions had another function – it could monitor how long an employee was away from their desk.
According to the New York Times, employees only found out about this function when the organisation’s HR manager began asking them about long lunch breaks or leaving early.
Initially, Health Boost issued a statement condemning the use of this data by the HR manager, but the company’s CEO has since come out in support of the move.
Health Boost’s CEO Zhang Biyong told The Times employers had a right to scrutinize the whereabouts of its employees, adding that he thinks the cushions could even be used to track work hours for payroll purposes.
Holland calls this kind of technology ‘tattle wear’.
“Some managers have become so afraid of not being able to see their employees when they work remotely, so they’ve implemented new ways to track their movement.”
He believes organisations who feel the need to use such technology should be focusing on improving management skills rather than trying to track their employees every move.
“This is exactly what performance management is for. You should be doing performance management two or three times a year,” he says.
“If you’re actually doing that properly it doesn’t matter if an employee isn’t at their desk eight hours straight because you know whether they’re pulling their weight or not.”
Organisations would benefit from investing in training managers to lead remotely, says Holland, than from employee monitoring technology.
If you do still want to implement any kind of initiative that uses third party tracking technology, there are a couple of additional considerations.
Firstly, Holland says you should be certain the data will be stored securely.
In the case of the employee who refused to give his fingerprint, a report from OHS Alert demonstrated up to six entities had access to the biometric data his employer was collecting.
According to the FWC, there was little evidence one of the companies collecting the data was adequately protecting it.
“If the big banks can be hacked, who’s to say you can’t?” says Holland. “And once it’s out there, you can’t get it back.”
Hackers aside, Holland also says there is the risk of the company collecting employees data might on-sell it to other companies.
In 2019, employees from a Queensland gas company revealed they had been asked to sign a waiver that allowed an organisation conducting pre-employment blood tests to send that data overseas, placing them outside Australian privacy laws.
“If you’re going to collect any sensitive data you must be certain of where it’s going and how it’s stored,” says Holland.
“Until you can tell employees their data is safe, you shouldn’t be considering collecting anything too personal.”
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