Photo by Crew

Wearables Let Firms Monitor Staff Health

Originally posted in The Australian by Verity Edwards:

Big Brother is watching and monitoring to ensure workers stay healthy and active. As wearable technology becomes capable of ­monitoring everything from heart rates to steps, calorie intake, sleep, hormones, stress and even the minutes people spend talking, worksites are starting to take health more seriously.

SMG Technologies chief executive Zane Hall says more worksites are turning to health monitoring, knowing that improved staff health leads to greater productivity, fewer days lost to sickness and a lower turnover.

“Will it improve the health of staff? Possibly,” Hall says.

“You can say you’re healthier and fitter while wearing it, you’re trying to mitigate disease. The cost comes back to the company in productivity and insurers in disease management.”

Wearable technology can include anything from a smartwatch that monitors whether people have been sitting at their desk too long — vibrating to alert people to move — to pedometers tracking steps, heart rate monitors, Fitbits monitoring calories and sleep, and wearable sensors measuring skin temperature and body position.

SMG has been involved in the sports science business for years, working with high-profile teams in countries including Britain and New Zealand. Sports teams also have spent years monitoring their athletes for fatigue, sleep, heart rate fluctuations and injury prevention, ensuring they get the best results from their stars.

But Hall says monitoring is ­becoming more prevalent in the US and British business markets, as companies realise they can improve output if they monitor staff and find their optimum performance levels.

In banking and finance, researchers at University College London and Cambridge University have been working with Goldman Sachs to link biological signals to trading success. Monitoring hormones and heart rates can show when traders are more confident or taking risks.

During the past two years, management consultancy Aon Hewitt has stepped up its wearable technology monitoring at worksites, and resident sport scientist Scott Coleman says stress can have a big impact on workers.

Using an adhesive patch that monitors body temperature and skin conductivity, Coleman has been able to monitor the level of sympathetic activity — or the stress response — people have to different events, whether they are physical or a reaction to other stressors. The patch also monitors sleep patterns.

“The body temperature changes due to light and deep sleep,” he says. “We can tell whether they’re getting enough deep or light sleep. They might be getting 10 hours, but it might be light and they might not be recovering. If they’re not getting enough, you can monitor that.”

Coleman also has been using wearable devices to investigate the movements of warehouse workers at risk of injury.

The risk data can be used in pre-emptive employment screening and to measure whether the strength of workers is deteriorating as they age and they are more at risk of injury.

“The more accurate (the) information we have about the physical demands of a job, and the physical capability of the athlete or worker, the less likely they’re going to be injured,” he says.

SMG’s Hall says there are practical applications for wearable technologies in the fly-in, fly-out mining sector, where devices such as heart rate monitors can track fatigue. “It’s not a core part of business, but we see us playing a significant role in that,” he says.

“The take-up of wearables in sales is showing a growing ­interest. In 18 months to three years there will be a lot more businesses using it. We follow the ­influences from the US market, a lot of our company headquarters are in the US. I would hope that Australian companies would be interested because of our interest in our health.”

Heavy transport company DGL has been trialling wearable technology to monitor drivers and warehouse staff for fatigue and movement.

By monitoring biomechanics and stress, the company is hoping to improve injury prevention rates. One solution is to encourage drivers and logistic workers to stretch before shifts.

There are few hi-tech wearable monitoring devices in the Australian market at the moment.

Hall’s role is to analyse and ­collate the health information downloaded via SMG’s software to ­provide feedback to teams and companies.

And while he says some staff respond well to monitoring, others have no interest in improving their health, being compared with the fittest and healthiest workers on their floor or having their heart rate records circulated.

Instead of focusing on an individual, Hall says companies can combine their health monitoring with social media and group ­tracking to ensure everyone feels comfortable.

“It’s about getting people to ­report against a like-minded group, it’s about making it fun, it’s about the social awareness of the company and being part of a team,” he says.

Coleman agrees, saying worksite health programs and monitoring need to be tailored to individuals. Corporate health ­programs often are beneficial only to people predisposed to taking up offers such as subsidised gym memberships, he says, and they can often be gimmicky.

“We get a lot of clients and they get their Fitbit and provide it to their workers and the momentum lasts three to four weeks.

“It’s not just about measuring things — it’s about measuring things that are valid. If the information can’t be used to make a ­difference, and used effectively, then it’s not worthwhile.”

He says any monitoring must be followed up with implementation strategies, subsequent consultations and individualised health education programs.