by Alex Palmer | March 26, 2015

Growing Options
While incentive planners are working to meet workers on their terms, the evolution in wearable technology, and sophistication in the metrics they track, also means that programs can target far more than how many steps someone walks in a day.

"Participation is pretty 101 these days," says Dermer. "Most employers and the vendors that serve them are looking for risk reduction and cost indicators."

Welltok clients are now most interested in period-over-period improvements in biometrics. They use a consistent set of measures to track improvements in these behaviors to cost reductions -- for example, using telehealth (connecting with healthcare providers online) to encourage participants to select a lower-cost treatment.

Last year, Virgin Pulse, a major player in the worker wellness sector, introduced Max, a Bluetooth-enabled, personalized wearable fitness device, which connects to the company's new app, Virgin Pulse Mobile. Similar to HBC, Virgin Pulse has also made it a priority to connect with workers who have their own device preferences. Their partner program has expanded significantly in the last couple years to ensure users have the greatest amount of flexibility in the devices they use.

"Monitoring wellbeing goes beyond tracking physical activity," says Jennifer Turgiss, vice president of health solutions for Virgin Pulse. "It includes things like stress, sleep, nutrition, etc. Broadly speaking, with wearables and apps, people can now track anything they want, examine data, and know when positive or negative changes are happening."

Virgin Pulse's wellness app can sync with
a growing number of wearables to ensure
the broadest possible participation

  For example, Virgin Pulse is aiming to add sleep-tracking functions to Max in the near future. Another surprising wellness area that wearable-enabled apps are exploring is measuring emotions. In April, Hitachi plans to roll out a new "happiness meter" that workers wear like a name badge. It uses acceleration sensors, which send signals back to a database that measures overall workplace happiness (to avoid privacy issues of looking at individual workers' attitudes and emotions).

A more holistic approach to tracking emotion comes from MoodHacker. The app encourages healthy habits regarding physical activity, sleep, and nutrition, and incorporates social support and personalized messaging to help lift moods.

"While MoodHacker is not a treatment program, it can be used supplementally for any individual in order to feel just a little better each day," explains Dr. Dave Sharar, managing director of Chestnut Global Partners (CGP), the group behind MoodHacker. "It is designed for daily use -- really, just a few minutes a day -- to track mood, activities, and journaling to help users raise their awareness of the influence of their daily activities on their mood and activate easy positive behaviors that will directly impact it."

Users can take short assessments to receive personalized recommendations on things they could do to feel better and continue to improve their emotional and physical health. Wellness educational content is delivered through brief videos, articles, and weekly emails. Sharar adds that CGP took pains to give the program a strong scientific basis, clinically testing it for effectiveness in a controlled trial funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health.

Though it is still in its beta stage -- the product is being used by some 350 workers at a Fortune 100 manufacturing company) -- MoodHacker points to the more comprehensive direction wellness metrics are moving.

These tools are also making wellness a lot more fun, as Service Foods saw. Being able to track workers' steps and exercise performance made the experience more interactive and flexible to each individual's wellness needs.

"It's engaged entertainment, not passive," says Tinney. He says adding the popularity of gaming to the attention placed on worker healthcare costs leads to "an unlikely but very effective pairing of solution with need."

Part of a Complete Program
Creative new gadgets and apps are proving an effective tool for engaging workers, particularly those who might not otherwise have been drawn into a more traditional program. But the success of "A Step Ahead: Zombies" at Service Foods brings up a different point that incentive planners will want to keep in mind as wellness apps get more engaging and wearable gadgets cooler: these are only one part of a comprehensive program.

"As someone who designs wellness programs, these tools are helpful, but not the end-all-be-all," cautions Saul Juan Antonio Cuautle, CEO and founder of MOS Training Systems.


The Fitbit, shown here, is just one
of many different wearable fitness
trackers that integrate with newly
enhanced mobile wellness apps.

He emphasizes that when companies make MyFitnessPal or Fitbit the entire focus of a wellness program, the program will fall short. Workers focusing only on the numbers of calories their device says they burned (or zombies they avoided) are more likely to feel disenchanted by their overall lack of results after a week or two. Instead, Cuautle believes that focusing on making habits -- spending a designated amount of time at the gym or sticking with an exercise regimen over a specific period of time -- leads to stronger long-term results.

"Just because you walk 8,000 steps in a day, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll lose X pounds per week. The nutrition is not to be overlooked, or the quality of exercise performed," says Cuautle.

Instead, he recommends seeing these tools as "avenues of information for wellness programs." They can add metrics and fun to an overall program, but should build on a firm foundation of education, long-term goals, and frequent recognition of success.

Virgin Pulse's Turgiss agrees. "Wearable fitness devices as a component of these more comprehensive programs are a great way for people to track their wellbeing and improve daily habits that'll lead to long-term healthy behaviors that help buffer the effects of modern life," she says.

Turgiss sees this as an additional argument in favor of company-sponsored wellness programs. While workers may already have a Jawbone or MyFitnessPal, connecting this interest in health to a more extensive program, fueled by incentives and social recognition, is more likely to ensure long-term success.

As Turgiss says, "People who use wearable devices as a component of a larger program have a greater chance of success than with devices that are used without wraparound programs."