Fit for Work
Dominic Irvine

Member Article

Fit for work


How long will it be before an employee sues an employer based on biometric data supplied via a fitness tracker? How long will it be before an employer dismisses an employee using the same source of data?

Twenty years ago, it’s hard to imagine acceptance from anyone to sign up to having 24 hour monitoring of their health, amount of activity and sleep, day in day out. It’s harder still to imagine that people would be willing to share this data freely with others. A casual glance around any room full of people today will find a significant number sporting a fitness band. Data is uploaded to a website that allows sharing with friends and more broadly if so wished. People comment on what others are doing to drive motivation and reward effort. The argument is no longer, are people willing to share data but with whom they might be prepared to share it. Within organisations, employees link together to share their training data when preparing for a joint sporting challenge no doubt with the aim of raising money for a good cause. It’s a small step to imagine the employer starting to use that data in some way.

The world of neuroscience is providing a growing body of evidence that reinforces the view that we should treat people as whole systems. For example, a person’s capability to reason is impacted by mental fatigue, which in turn is affected by sleep, diet and exercise. Being fit for work is becoming a science that can be quantified. If you can count something you can set targets and define acceptable ranges. From an employers perspective, if you are spending tens of thousands a year on someone to deliver value for the business you might reasonably demand they look after themselves in order to deliver the value expected. This is particularly important for those people in key business roles, as the absence of such people from a business can affect business performance and in turn share price. At the most senior levels in business, expecting people to look after themselves would seem to be something of a no-brainer. If your salary is millions a year, a day lost to ill health is tens of thousands of pounds worth of time.

It’s not only of value to the employer. An employee whose work life is so demanding as to have a negative impact on their health may be able to use biometric evidence in support of a claim against the business. “I’m stressed and not sleeping very well” can be measured. Hormone levels and hours slept can be counted. It’s not a question of being a wimp or being macho, it’s a question of physiological response.

It’s becoming easier and easier to track this data. Many of the apps and devices today talk to each other. Get up in the morning and stand on the scales and your weight, body fat, lean muscle mass, the mass of your bones and your body’s water percentage is communicated to a website along with your pulse wave velocity (or similar measurement). Your wrist bands fills in details about the quality and quantity of your sleep. After an exercise session on your bike, information about the power you produced, your heart rate during the session and calories burned joins all the other data. Based on levels of fitness, the app provides data that enables assessment into levels of fitness and fatigue from which can be determined when to rest. It doesn’t stop there. You scan the barcode on your breakfast meal and enter details of the weight of the food eaten and this uploads information on carbohydrates, proteins, fats and the micronutrients within the food eaten. Based on the exercise done and the food eaten, the balance is shown of what you need to consume for the rest of the day. This is all available today, at moderate cost. I know, because I do all of this. I also know that it is still a bit clunky and levels of motivation have to be high to persist, but it is not a particularly demanding process. It is one that is getting easier as the various organisations behind the different devices improve the way everything integrates behind the scenes.

I believe this is going to have a fundamental impact on the way we manage others and ourselves. In just the same way as working time directives have set out what is an acceptable period of time to work, so too will definitions begin to emerge of what constitutes an acceptable level of pressure as measured using biometrics. Companies will have dashboards of employee data that enables them to spot those people who are getting close to the limits and step in and enforce appropriate rest and recuperation. Equally, the capacity for more work will be identified in those people who can stand a little extra pressure. Training programmes will focus on helping employees improve their self-management to maximise their potential and possibly their reward. We talk of an internet of things. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that we too are one of those things. The cat’s out of the bag, it’s no longer a question of are we prepared to be measured but how far we are prepared to let this analysis go. Think on when sharing the number of steps walked. You’ve just taken a step further on a journey you may not realise you were on.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Dominic Irvine .

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