Why Fitbits won’t make your employees fit

It’s April: the month where January wellness resolutions go to die. As the local gyms empty and donuts reclaim their place as the breakfast of workplace champions, it is tempting for those in  charge of employee wellness programs to look for a quick fix to the annual wellness slump.

Enter the Fitbit. The wearable wellness tracker, which has over 25 million active users (and a dozen of models to choose from) and last year helped enthusiasts take a combined 45 trillion steps. The numbers are huge. What is there for a wellness program manager not to love?  

Wearable tech has clear health benefits. One of the most promising is that it allows people with chronic conditions to constantly monitor vital signs to better control their health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 71% of all healthcare spending in the U.S. goes towards treating people with multiple chronic conditions, which includes half of all working aged Americans (45-64).

And for just about anybody, wearables can be a great temporary tool to help break into a new habit by increasing awareness around current behaviors like sleeping or walking.

The keywords, however, are “temporary tool.”

Self-tracking health behaviors is par for the course for the average dietician or professional athlete. It’s only in the last 5 or so years that self-tracking –– aided by wearable technology and mobile apps –– has exploded in popularity among the average consumer.

And five years into our love affair with wearables, consumers are starting to realize that there can be a fine line between taking control of one’s own behavior through self-tracking –– and feeling controlled by the technology on our wrists and smartphones.

For runners like me, there’s nothing quite like the anxiety of setting out on a long training run and realizing you forgot your watch at home. As panic sets in, it becomes clear that an obsession with tracking can land us at cross-purposes to the very reason why many of us started tracking the first place.

As the Baroness Von Sketch Show highlights in this Fitbit parody (warning: adult language!) it’s clear that the notion that we’re over-monitoring ourselves is resonating more and more.  It may be time to re-examine our relationship (or obsession) with better wellness through tech.

So should you throw out all those readily available metrics and let your wellness program participants choose to measure whatever they want?

That would be a great start! Here’s why:

  • Hyper-focusing on improving a single health behavior ignores others that we know are interrelated. For example, someone is eating loads of home cooked whole foods, but they’re so stressed and lacking sleep that their body isn’t properly digesting the nutrients.
  • We make tracking so popular that activities not recorded cease to exist and are therefore not worthy of accomplishment. Motivation gradually becomes more external, which makes us disassociate more from our true bodily experience.

The good news is that consumer tracking tools have become much more holistic in recent years and wellness program designers are getting smart about what really works to engage and support a healthy workforce.

If you are choosing or designing a program, you may want to check out these tips on how to create a culture of workplace wellness. And consider self-tracking a tactic to employ rather than your entire strategy.

Make sure:

  • Progress is tracked manually by participants. Actively logging information versus automated entry is associated with higher goal attainment.
  • Goals are set by participants. Otherwise, you’re simply implying that more is better or encouraging unrealistic comparisons, which can fuel disordered behavior.
  • The outcome is not tied to weight loss. Do we really have to say it again?
  • You’re not over-incentivizing participation. Trust employees’ intrinsic motivation for improving their health. It’s more sustainable.
  • Participation is optional. Mandates are not fun.  

Last, like any behavior change tactic, adapt for your audience. For example, some people love the gadgetry while others may prefer more in-person support.

Now, where did I put that watch?!