Business Law & Compliance

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Can employers use wearable tech to spy on workers?

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The wearable technology sector is growing at a rapid pace. Research shows 45.7 million wearable tech units will be sold in 2015, up 133 per cent since 2014. Wearable fitness-related technology is driving this growth, with Fitbit, Jawbone Up, and Nike FuelBand trackers at the forefront.

While many of these fitness trackers are used for tracking location and speed, more sophisticated devices can perform a wider variety of functions, from detecting movement, heart rate, and body temperature, to monitoring breathing and sleep patterns.

Employers are jumping on this trend by providing wearable tech to employees as an “incentive”. 

While FitBits are being promoted as a way to help workers increase their activity levels, the advantage to bosses is obvious – more active staff are happier and healthier. In a survey by Salesforce, 76 per cent of business professionals surveyed reported improvements in business performance after implementing wearable devices with 86 per cent saying they planned to increase wearable technology spending over the next 12 months.

“Spying” on employees

While plenty of companies are embracing this technology to benefit their workforce, a few companies are generating bad publicity by using it to “spy” on employees. For example, wearable tech has already been used by one London hedge fund to track their traders and find out whether poor sleep patterns and alcohol intake correlates with risk-taking behaviour.

Other firms such as Tesco have used them to direct employees around their warehouses, and NHS trusts are asking staff to wear trackers to encourage them to lead healthier lifestyles. 

And it’s not just businesses; health insurance companies are encouraging corporate policyholders to ask staff to wear trackers in order to reduce their premiums, a survey by Accenture in 2014 showed that 63 per cent of insurance executives expect wearables to be broadly adopted by the insurance industry within the next two years.

Chris Brauer, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, who experiments with wearable tech in the workplace, has predicted a future where managers have dashboards that display real-time employee biometrics such as sleep quality and other leading indicators for performance.

While I find this image of bosses monitoring the workforce from their laptop screens hard to envisage, there is no doubt that the issue of wearable technology will be a growing area of concern for employees asked to wear them, and for bosses confused around what they can offer workers without landing in legal hot water.

A recent poll by PwC showed that four in ten British workers would be happy to wear a monitor to track their movements if the data were used to improve their working lives, and as might be expected, that support rises to 70 per cent for those aged 18 to 34. However, 41 per cent say they don’t trust their employer not to use the data against them in some way.

Continue reading on page two to discover what companies need to do…

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