Next-Generation Workplace Wellness

Big Data and AI Stand to Revolutionize Employee Health Programs

So much is happening at the intersection of workplace wellness, big data and artificial intelligence. Since I wrote my first essay on this topic, Deloitte Insights published an important analysis suggesting that firms can receive benefits worth $1.62 for every dollar they spend on employee mental health. That forms just one more data point reinforcing the fact that workplace wellness pays off.
During the same month, Google signed a cloud computing deal with the U.S. hospital network, Ascension, entrusting the tech company with the personal health histories of millions of Americans. Coupled with Google’s purchase of the wearable maker, Fitbit, the moves have triggered privacy and other concerns: With some of the most advanced AI tools in existence, what could the computing giant do with all that data?
Over the next decade or so, workplace wellness will further merge with the world of big data and artificial intelligence. Employers have grasped that healthier workers are more productive workers. The increasing popularity of workplace wellness also is influenced by growing recognition of the value of prevention.
Workplace wellness programs have been around for a long time. After the Second World War, Canadian companies began with programs designed to help employees struggling with alcohol dependency. In 1979, the modern era of employee assistance programs (EAP) began with a new series of psychological health benefits, including smoking cessation and weight management programs. Such initiatives were designed to keep employees at work, and working more productively while they were on the job.
Today, big data and artificial intelligence algorithms can help improve workplace wellness. New vendors have emerged who rely on big data as a central tenet to their value propositions. Their solutions employ healthcare data to inform the employer which employees are at risk of developing serious illnesses. The vendor then targets the employees with personalized messages appropriate to the situation, such as nudges to see a doctor, or appropriate services, such as weight-loss programs.
Such innovations generate privacy and ethical concerns. Employers have an obligation to ensure they use employee data responsibly. As well, employers who are sponsoring next-generation workplace wellness programs need to make sure they’ve thought through the ethical considerations.
At Medcan, we pride ourselves in our ability to provide our clients with the state of the art. We’ve given a lot of consideration to the ethics and privacy issues involved in deploying next-generation workplace wellness programs. We propose a six-part framework for an ethical employee wellness program.
  1. Accountability and transparency regarding the collection of personal data, the use of that data, compliance with privacy regulations, if applicable, and data security.
  2. Limitation of data utilization to the duration of employee participation.
  3. Ensure the program is not punitive, that is, no disadvantage exists for those who do not participate in the program.
  4. Confirmation to the employee that health recommendations are backed by peer-reviewed research that is available to the employee upon request.
  5. Inform employees about the scope and potential limitations of data from wearables.
  6. Empower employees to raise concerns about programs without fear of reprisal, and consider appointing an ombudsperson to investigate.
Employers and employees both benefit from programs that encourage a healthy workforce. While employers are interested in managing healthcare costs, that financial interest does not undermine the employee’s right to privacy, or the right to avoid being subjected to discrimination. Employees will be more willing to enroll and participate in these programs if they are allowed some ownership in their design and direction. We offer a four-part approach to support collaboration between employers and employees.
  1. Involve employees in the design and renovation of employee health and wellness programs.
  2. Take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing by connecting employer-sponsored group benefit programs to other wellness programs, such as psychological counseling
  3. Treat mental health as equally important to physical
  4. Employers and employees should both share in the responsibility for improving workplace wellness programs.
A wellness program that employs ethical data-collection and -handling practices can reconcile employer and employee interests. Such ethical principles as informed consent, accountability, and fair use of personal health data, and meaningful employee involvement in program design, should help maximize the impact of next-generation workplace wellness programs.
Ashim Khemani is the President of Medcan. He is the author of Canadian Group Insurance Benefits—A Practitioner’s Guide and Reference Manual, and the co-author of Global Health Care Systems: A Perspective on Issues, Practices and Trends Among OECD Nations.

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