Firms help staff keep fit with fitness trackers

(From left) Finance executive Crystal Lim, 37, managing director Sunil Kaul, 47, and operations manager Sally Yeo, 34, at camera maker Leica, with their Fitbit fitness trackers. The data collected by Fitbit can be used to monitor staff welfare, and t
(From left) Finance executive Crystal Lim, 37, managing director Sunil Kaul, 47, and operations manager Sally Yeo, 34, at camera maker Leica, with their Fitbit fitness trackers. The data collected by Fitbit can be used to monitor staff welfare, and the results used to encourage employees to exercise more, making them more productive in the workplace.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Corporate wellness programmes help bosses track data like exercise rate of staff who opt in

Singapore companies are increasingly turning to fitness trackers in an effort to keep their staff healthy, reduce sickness absence and even boost productivity.

The watch-like devices keep track of data such as number of steps walked, heart rate and hours slept, and store it with their manufacturers through cloud software.

Corporate wellness programmes by device makers such as Fitbit help employers collect such data from staff who opt in to the programmes. This can be used to monitor staff welfare, and the results used to encourage employees to exercise more, making them more productive in the workplace.

Fitbit started pilots for its corporate programme in Singapore two years ago, and has since signed up four major corporations and 16 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), reaching a total of 2,400 employees here.

The company distributes trackers, which cost between $82.48 and $274.94 to clients' employees at a bulk discount. It also advises them on how to use the biodata collected to assess how their staff are doing health-wise, and better shape incentive programmes, such as walking competitions, to keep them fit. The cost of the trackers is either sponsored by the company or shared between employer and employee.

Fitbit Wellness vice-president Amy McDonough said such programmes could help companies save on future medical costs.

For instance, Fitbit is working with insurers such as AIA Vitality and Manulife to lower healthcare premiums for companies on the programme. She said: "It's about being proactive instead of waiting until you've attracted a health condition."

Fitbit plans to get 100 more companies on board the programme by the end of the year.

Ms McDonough hopes to team up with employers in areas such as manufacturing or hospitals, where staff work in shifts, as monitoring data such as sleep levels is crucial to workplace safety.

Camera maker Leica spent about $4,000 on Fitbit products for its 27 employees in Singapore. Managing director Sunil Kaul, 46, said: "I need minimum absentee rates. I have some older, experienced technical repairmen, and if one is sick, I can't have a fresh person come in to do their work."

Software firm SAP is using its own cloud technology to analyse the number of steps its employees are walking. Half its staff in Singapore have chosen to buy subsidised fitness trackers. Clocking steps wins them points for their medical benefits accounts, which they can spend on healthcare. General manager Simon Dale, 50, said one employee did so much walking in the past six months that his doctor took him off his diabetic medication. Mr Dale himself has started running three times as much as he used to.

At the end of last year, computer giant IBM distributed wearable trackers - including Fitbit devices - to more than 500 staff in Singapore.

Another fitness tracker, Misfit, has tied up with wellness consultancy Globetrekker Challenge to craft wellness programmes for more than 600 employees here.

But for all their advantages, incorporating such trackers into the workplace might come at a cost - employees' privacy.

Market research firm ABI Research principal analyst Jonathan Collins said: "Employee concerns may well stretch to a level of intrusion into their lives away from the workplace."

Lawyer S. Suressh from Harry Elias Partnership said that under the Data Protection Act, employers must obtain consent from their staff on what data they can collect. However, he added that the Act does not prevent data collectors such as Fitbit from aggregating the data and using it in an anonymous form.

Ms McDonough said Fitbit does not give employers access to data such as diet details or sleep patterns, which users might not be comfortable with their bosses knowing. "We wouldn't share if you were out drinking at 2am, or if you just ate at McDonald's," she said. "The employee has a choice, always."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Firms help staff keep fit with fitness trackers'. Print Edition | Subscribe