Market research firm Canalys recently projected that wearable device shipments will grow 129 percent year over year to reach 43.2 million units in 2015. Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health, meanwhile, found that 76 percent of the employers it surveyed are exploring the use of personalized digital health technologies, including mobile health applications and fitness wearables, as well as social media to encourage greater physical activity among their employees.

So are wearable trackers just a fad? Or do they represent the future of workplace wellness? To help employers make sense of it all, EBN convened a panel of wearable wellness experts at this year’s Benefits Forum & Expo. The panel was moderated by Fran Melmed, founder of context, a change management and communication consulting firm. Panelists included: Andrea Dumont, senior director, product marketing with wellness vendor Virgin Pulse; Doug McClure, executive vice president of product marketing with FitLinxx, a provider of wellness applications, wireless activity monitors and health tracking devices, including the Pebble+ Activity Tracker; and Hiran Perera, CEO and co-founder of wellness vendor Walkingspree, which incorporates fitness trackers such as Fitbit into its program.

Why are employers so interested in activity trackers?

Dumont: From what we’ve heard from our members and customers is that [they are looking for] are some quick wins to lower medical costs and quick wins to make a more engaged workforce. And they’re learning, more and more, that it has to do with that activity level and how they can engage their workforce and keep them focused. Being able to have those wearables, whether it be a FitBit or anything else, it allows them that daily interaction, that daily accountability that allows you to focus on getting healthier, which in turn allows employers to see that increase in productivity.

Perera: They are measurable, unlike some other components of corporate wellness such as health risk assessments and so on, which just get people aware.

A lot of people will say that while these devices are great, they’re only worn by people who are healthy. Is that true? What’s your experience?

McClure: You used a very important word there – experience. What are each of us looking for out of engaging in the program experience? And then the device is really just a piece of technology. Sometimes that’s hard for me to say because we build devices and we want you all to buy them. But the reality is, it’s the experience built around the device that helps make sure that it’s what each of us wants.

Dumont: You’ve got to meet your employees where they are. Some of us have [employees] who are offline; we’ve got retail, people in manufacturing. When you think about that, how are you integrating your entire population with a tracker? How are you encouraging them to have some level of physical activity when the guys on the shop floor may have very different goals than the people in the corporate office? So this concept of being able to have that adoption across your organization with something as simple as an activity tracker is a first step to taking those behaviors.

What other factors enrich the experience?

Dumont: The market is certainly moving toward total integration of the healthy behaviors. The Apple Health Kit is a perfect example of that. Everything is integrated into one device. We have all these apps now for tracking sleep, how you manage your diet, stress, everything having to do with your financial wellness as well. This whole interactivity of devices is going to be huge. And the question is, how do we give it to our employees without this huge confusion of ‘well, I don’t know how to use it all, so therefore I’m not going to.’

Some research shows that up to one-third of owners abandon their devices in six months. Other research says four months. There’s a really big initial excitement, but then that falls to the wayside. How can we conclude that these devices alter the behavior in the long term?

Perera: The platform makes a huge difference. How we connect matters. We have to get them into a routine where they consider that device their best friend.

Dumont: The great thing about having a hub, a central location, is you can do challenges. Send those out to your employees and get them involved. It could be a personal challenge or a corporate challenge, or a localized challenge for your remote offices. How we go about making sure people are ingrained in the program and understand what they’re doing and then incentivize them to complete those challenges.

McClure: It’s the new toy effect. You get a new toy, you’re interested, you’re excited, you try it out and then the shine wears off. Some other new toy comes into your life and it takes over your interest. The new toys that stay with you are the ones that are connected back to what gives you long-term value. That is the challenge of the device, a little bit, but it’s really a larger challenge of the services and experiences around it.

Think of a garage door opener. That’s a new toy. It’s very exciting when you get one if you’ve never had one before. Then it becomes a must-have. That’s the challenge for us – how do we cross over to a must-have?

The Apple Watch is coming out. I believe it’s very optimistic to think it’s going to be such a disruptor. At $350 at the low end, and requiring an iPhone, I personally have a hard time seeing my way there. But there are other opportunities it presents. What do you think?

Perara: I think the Apple Watch will make a difference in five years, not next year. Employers cannot afford $350. Secondly, BYOD [bring-your-own-device] policies are still not there yet.

McClure: Since we’re a company that builds activity trackers, we’re very careful about how we watch this stuff. One thing to think about is the commoditization of activity. The measurement of activity is going to be built in to a whole bunch of other devices you have in your life. Why would you buy a separate activity device? There are specific reasons – you don’t want to run with your phone or your watch or you’re not going to swim with it or it doesn’t fit in to specific parts of the experience. The other side is wellness programs and I think smart wellness programs are going to figure out how to co-opt that. As much as I’d like to sell a Pebble [device] to everybody, the reality is that smart program providers and builders are going to co-opt that in. In our world, don’t run from what Apple is up to but figure out how to co-opt it into your experience.

Also see: Cost, security concerns may slow Apple Watch's role in workplace wellness

Dumont: I agree it’s not going to be ready or affordable for many, many years but it’s finally a device talking about the total wellbeing of an employee. If anything, that’s the exciting thing. It’s not necessarily that it’s going to be a perfect device that’s affordable to everyone. The promise, I think, of what Apple’s bringing to the market is they’re finally bringing all those disparate data sources into one. And that’s going to allow us to look at your employees’ wellbeing, which raises a lot of other data discussions in terms of who gets that data and who has access to that data.

There’s not a lot of guidance around how this data is used and how it’s collected. Employees as consumers are becoming more aware, and wary, of privacy. How can employers use these devices?

Dumont: We do a lot of aggregated data. There’s no personal information. What we try to do is give [employers] that shift in culture and say ‘your company and your culture has moved to a more healthy lifestyle in these ways.’ There’s no personal identification. But we need the right technology to be able to do that and being sure we have the correct data and firewalls in place to make sure none of that is identifiable from a personal perspective.

McClure: Our devices go to market through our partner programs. So the data is all handled at the program level. But we have an interesting challenge in that the market is changing. So we took our devices out into the market with an enterprising guideline that we would tie very closely with our partner programs and that would mean the individual would register with the partner program, get the device and it would all be tied up as one. Who owns that data? The employer? The employee? We had a unified experience, but the market switched. … What we’re having to do right now in reworking our product is think about how do we unleash that? The movement is all back to the consumer. I don’t know where it will all lead but it’s pretty hard to put that genie back in the bottle. I’m pretty convinced consumers want control of their data.

Perera: Until consumers take charge and gives permission to the employer, employees will always be scared employers will use their health data in an inappropriate way.

How do you see the use of data evolving?

McClure: The opportunity is just like with other programs – smoking cessation or stress management, for example. Put them out there and provide approachable mechanisms. We don’t make smoking cessation programs mandatory but we do put them out there in front of people and entice them as much as possible.

What’s the future of these devices?

McClure: I think they’re going to become more and more invisible. Apple Watch is an example of how the sensing is going to be invisible. For us, we’re working on devices that you attach even closer. [Some people] don’t want it to be at all noticeable. For me it’s about building devices that are smaller, lighter, better and that fit into people’s lifestyles the way they want them to.

Perera: I honestly think Google Glass is going to take off in about five years. We will all wear something, [some type of] body sensors. It will [create] the same revolution as the smartphone.

This story originally appeared on Employee Benefit News.

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