Precis

In this article, we consider the impact of wearable technology and the various challenges of integrating these into the workplace.

What?

Wearable technology has become mainstream in everyday life, we are now able to control and monitor our entire lives though wearable devices, such as Fitbits, Garmins and Apple watches. Some of the key features to these well-known devices include the ability to record, track and report on individuals’ sleep, exercise activity, stress, heart rate and other health related metrics as well as the wearer’s location. But is the workplace ready for such technology?

Wearable devices have the potential to unlock new opportunities for both employers and employees, allowing employers to measure and improve productivity, health and safety and employee wellbeing. However, there are many legal hurdles and important challenges that employers need to overcome.

Whilst the expansion of wearable technology has raised some concerns, for employers there are many valuable benefits. For example, in the US, an increasing number of companies now operate “wellness programmes” for their workforce leveraging wearable technology to monitor employees’ activity to drive positive change and improve employee wellbeing. The reported advantages included reduced costs associated with injuries and illness and also allowing employers to get preferential terms on employee insurance.

Although employees are keen for their employers to play an active role in health and wellbeing, the vast majority of employees are still resistant to the idea of workplace wearable technology and sharing their data with their employers, especially if this includes data about their lifestyle outside of work. A common concern is that employers may use the data to create an oppressive working environment, with employees feeling as if they are under constant surveillance. Employers could be considered to be impeaching their employees’ right to privacy and there are also risks of data breaches, data theft and hacking.

As wearable technology becomes more ubiquitous in the workplace, transparency and employee education could help towards addressing some of these problems.

So what?

For UK employers considering introducing wearable technology in the workplace, a crucial issue will be proactively addressing the data privacy requirements and employment laws dealing with employees’ rights. Employers don’t just have a green light to legally mandate their workforce to use on the job wearable devices.

Employers should obtain employee consent for the use of wearable technology and wellness/tracking programmes. Employees need to be made aware of the following:

  • what personal data will be collected, used and disclosed; and
  • the purposes for which, and how, the personal data will be collected, used and disclosed.

Generally, most wearable devices are intended to be worn 24/7 therefore, it is especially important for employers to inform employees if they are collecting personal data outside of working hours i.e. hours of sleep. It is also recommended that all companies ensure policies are reviewed and updated to take into account the implications of wearable technology in the workplace.

Importantly, employers should also consider the other legal risks. For example, if it intends to use employees’ “productivity data” to justify salary increases, promotions or even dismissals, employers need to be mindful that if less active employees are penalised there is a potential risk that the employee may argue the employer is discriminating against older, pregnant, less healthy employees or those with a disability.

Although wearable technology presents risks for employers, adequately preparing will ensure that wearable technology can be used in the workplace. Social norms are likely to help but for many employers the measure of success will depend upon its ability to overcome any trust gaps and employee resistance, proving to employees that wearable technology delivers a real benefit to its business.