9 ways corporate fitness and wellness programs will change in 2016

Employee fitness and wellness programs continued to grow in popularity during recent years. For example, 70 percent of U.S. employers now offer some kind of employee wellness program, up from 58 percent in 2008, according to a study released in June 2015 by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Despite this notable increase, enterprises will face challenges in 2016 related to their fitness and wellness programs, including ongoing security and privacy concerns among employees and the need to keep staff engaged with new features, rewards and challenges. 

Here's a look at some of the top trends in technology-backed fitness and wellness programs for 2016. 

Wearables, and emotional and spiritual wellness in 2016

Enterprises will continue to make large investments in walking-based challenges, weight maintenance programs and other physical health initiatives. However, organizations will in 2016 increasingly add or expand programs "that nurture the emotional, spiritual, and social aspects of wellbeing," says Dr. Rajiv Kumar, founder and CEO of ShapeUp.

[Related Feature: The 3 best activity trackers that cost less than $100]

The trend of incorporating "mental well-being" into corporate health programs is gaining traction in places such as Silicon Valley, according to Nichol Bradford, founder of the Transformative Technology Lab in Palo Alto, Calif. Some tech companies are "looking into ways to incorporate wearable gear that measures brainwaves, as well as meditation programs that help employees better communicate and become leaders," he says. 

Don Joos, president and CEO of ShoreTel, recently took some time during a company meeting to update the organization on his vision of wellness, which includes mind, body and spirit, according to Jennifer Campbell, ShoreTel's senior HR manager. "He encouraged employees to define their own routines and gave a call-to-action for employees to help their peers live a healthier lifestyle."

Subsidized activity trackers for employees' significant others

Houston Methodist, a hospital chain, is among a number of organizations that not only subsidize the cost of Fitbit activity trackers for its employees but also for their partners and spouses, according to Heather Kennedy, director of customer success at Fitbit Corporate Wellness. Kennedy expects more companies to follow Houston Methodist's lead in 2016.

Emory University is also considering subsidized Fitbits for its staff's spouses and partners in 2016. "Social support is important" in getting employees to sign up, participate, and stay motivated not only during a fitness challenge, but also all year long, says Michael Staufacker, director of the university's health management department.

Fitness and wellness programs will use new tech in 2016 

Many modern corporate fitness and wellness programs already employ activity trackers, but 2016 will bring additional technologies and applications into the mix.

We can expect to see a more "multifaceted" approach to delivering new features, according to Jeff Ruby, Newtopia founder and CEO, including live fitness coaching delivered to employees via two-way video conferencing. CIOs will need to ensure their organizations' network bandwidth can support the additional burden, he says. 

Gamification, social networking key to corporate wellness in 2016

To encourage and maintain staff participation in fitness initiatives, gamification and social networking will become even more important in 2016.

"People got super excited about 'the quantified self' in 2015, with a whirlwind of wireless wearables taking the corporate wellness world by storm," says Sonic Boom Wellness CEO Danna Korn. But next year, "we'll see that 2015's mass investment in Fitbits and other devices will be for naught, unless companies find a way to sustain interest in them."

[Related Feature: How HR uses fitness trackers to increase company wellness]

"With employees providing an inherent social networking framework, companies will need to find programs that play upon that sociality by 'gamifying' wellness and encouraging social interaction alongside wellness efforts," Korn says. "All the excitement about fitness, fitness apps, and fancy gadgets will fizzle out without more substance and structured social programming in place." 

"Corporate wellness programs will start to incorporate more fun activities that motivate employees to participate and stick with the programs, including enhanced technology, gamification, competitions and other similar ideas," adds Kelly Johnston, senior vice president of product development at Health Advocate. "As part of this transition, we'll see the 'sticks' start to disappear in favor of more 'carrots,' encouraging employees to take action without feeling forced to do so because of penalties."

An emphasis on sleep in 2016

Many modern activity trackers, including Fitbit's Charge HR and Surge, Misfit Shine 2, and Nuyu Activity Tracker, automatically track users' sleep. Some corporate wellness programs provide employers with aggregated data about employee sleep trends, which they can use to help make staff more aware of potential sleep problems and suggest ways to enhance sleep quantity and quality.

Some employers now believe the blue rays in the "ordinary white light" that comes from devices such as tablets and smartphones can disrupt sleep and affect health, according to Richard L. Hansler, Ph.D., a retired scientist for General Electric and one of three scientists who created the website LowBlueLights.com

Real-time fitness data will help demonstrate ROI in 2016 …

"The big data movement will continue to penetrate corporate wellness programs," says Phil Daniels, cofounder of Healthiest Employers. "Employers are gaining access to the data silos that have traditionally been difficult to translate into decisions. For example, employers are auditing and evaluating claims data, biometric results, and pharmacy usage to feed predictive modeling forecasts on a near real-time basis, instead of waiting for the year-end snapshot. This allows a much more flexible approach to adjust spending throughout the year for the greatest impact and ROI."

Daniels adds that 45 percent of U.S. employers expect to report the wellness program performance data to senior management on a quarterly basis, compared to the annual reporting of years past. (Daniels says his numbers come from analyzing the wellness programs of 4,000 employers in 45 U.S. cities.) 

"As employers adopt analytics and predictive modeling software, ROI becomes more quantifiable," Daniels says. "We're seeing an increased interest in employers validating and measuring their wellness vendors because there's a more complete, objective data set available to prove outcomes." 

… But showing ROI will remain a challenge

A recent study from the RAND Corporation found that for every dollar invested in enterprise wellness programs, the overall ROI is $1.50. However, companies will continue to struggle with measuring the ROI of corporate wellness programs in 2016, according to Mike Tinney, CEO of Fitness Interactive Experiencehttp://www.astepaheadchallenge.com/about-fix/.

"You can measure health improvement through biometric screening," Tinney says. "You can measure engagement and retention. You can count calories and steps. But a hard ROI is challenging, because your biggest expense relating to health is insurance, and many external factors influence the cost of insurance coverage. If you're willing to buy into the notion that a healthier human being is more efficient, sick less often and happier, then investing in these programs for your employees (and yourself) makes a lot of sense."

Lingering privacy, security concerns in 2016

Some employees worry that the activity and other health data collected by employers will be used against them, causing their health insurance premiums to increase and their chances for promotions or raises to diminish. Though most enterprises are working hard to overcome such concerns, it is likely impossible to alleviate them for everyone. 

"People worry about Big Brother and surveillance," said André Spicer, a Cass Business School professor at City University London, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review. "We shell out hundreds of dollars for tracking bands, something convicts are forced to wear. If you're volunteering to do it and it helps your wellness, that's probably good. But it gets complicated when companies want to mandate the use of this technology, because it completely breaks down the barrier between work and life. Suddenly, whether or not I go for a jog on my own time is something my company is tracking. That's a slippery, slippery slope."

Fitness challenges increasingly tied to charity

In 2015, Target was among a set of large enterprises that tied fitness challenges to charitable donations. The team that won Target's recent month-long challenge received $1 million to donate to the charity of its choice.

"A growing body of research suggests that altruism is an effective, low-cost, and meaningful way to reduce stress and improve wellbeing," says ShapeUp's Kumar. "In 2016, employers will begin to capitalize on this, offering ways for employees to tap into their innate altruism while achieving health goals. The framework already exists. For example, in 2015, many employers offered employees the opportunity to donate their earned incentive dollars to charity. But this is an area ripe for innovation and has huge engagement potential, as employees want opportunities to do good."

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