IRVING, Texas — On his 21st day back at work after a heart attack and triple bypass surgery, Chris Zubko received a call from the main office. Through an app on his phone, his boss was literally monitoring every step of Zubko’s recovery.
Welcome to a rapidly growing phenomenon in the workplace: constant health surveillance.
A digital fitness tracker strapped to Zubko’s wrist sends a tally of his daily movements, via the company’s UnitedHealth Group insurance account, to an app on his boss’s phone. While some employees might find this real-time feedback intrusive, Zubko, 51, said he is unfazed.
“He’s a real motivator,’’ Zubko said after getting off the phone with Gono.
Devices worn on employees’ bodies are an increasingly valuable source of workforce health intelligence for employers and insurance companies. It’s fueling a boom in the use of wrist-borne health and fitness monitors such as those made by Fitbit, Garmin and Apple.
But the volume of highly sensitive health data scooped up from individual employees is exploding, too, raising privacy concerns and adding a new dimension to the relationship of workers and their employers. Often the information is not covered by federal rules that protect health records from disclosure. And when it’s combined with data such as credit scores, employees are giving up more insights about themselves than they realize.
The ever-more-sophisticated devices are measuring not just steps and distance walked but also the hours a worker spends in a sedentary state, 24/7 heart rate, and sleep duration and quality.
The goal is to help people get and stay fit and save on health-care costs, although evidence is mixed at best about whether the approach works. An employee who barely budges from their desk could be next in line for a medical intervention. That could come from a call center run by Fitbit or a notification from Aetna, which recently announced a new health-monitoring program using Apple watches.
Or, at a small employer such as Regal Plastics, it could come straight from the boss you’ve known for almost 25 years.
Gono said he had been using Zubko’s steps data to push the employee, who handles accounting and purchasing at the Austin office, even before his health crisis in December.
“He just wasn’t doing anything’’ when it came to exercise, Gono said. “You could tell because he would get less than 2,000 steps every day. He was one of the ones that I personally always challenged.’’
Now, since his heart attack, “everybody’s pushing this guy,’’ Gono added. “We do that with everybody, especially the ones who don’t seem to be exercising.’’
In general, employees in such programs voluntarily sign up for digital health monitoring. They are lured by cash, reduced premiums, or reimbursements for co-payments and deductibles, which have skyrocketed for many people with insurance. The devices are handed out free or discounted.
Their employers and insurance companies are hungry for the resulting explosion of information about their workers. Around 20 percent of employers who offer health insurance collected data last year from their employees’ wearable devices, up from 14 percent in 2017, according to an annual survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Annual sales of wearable devices for use in company wellness programs will grow to 18 million in 2023 in the United States, according to tech consulting firm ABI Research.
Fitbit is moving aggressively to sign up companies. It added a call service that will reach out to individual workers — via text messages and phone calls — whose data shows they are falling short of their fitness goals. It’s part of a concerted effort to improve the health of entire workforces.
“Sustained behavior change is really the focus,’’ said Adam Pellegrini, senior vice president of Fitbit Health Solutions. “Through the system, we can actually see who is not hitting their goals, who is not adhering to that action plan.’’
But privacy and workforce specialists warn the data could be abused to favor the healthiest employees while punishing or stigmatizing those who are less healthy, or who show signs of unhealthy behavior such as heavy drinking or drug use.
“The more that employers know about their employees’ lives, especially outside the workplace, off-duty hours, the more potential control or effects they have on their lives in the first place,’’ said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for consumer privacy.
“It’s quite possible,’’ he said, “there will be effects on whether you are retained, promoted, demoted — who is first to be laid off.’’
Cash rewards for steps
The vibe at Regal Plastics seems more paternalistic than punitive.
The privately held family firm, headquartered among Irving’s office parks and warehouses near the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, has 100 employees at several locations around Texas. The company builds desks, outdoor canopies, display cases, stage sets, pet carriers, bulletproof barriers and just about anything else a business or contractor might need.
It’s led by Wayne Gono, and his wife, Patsy, whose father founded the business in 1970. Patsy is the company’s president. Wayne has taken the title of visionary/chief networking officer and has passed the title of chief executive to the couple’s son, Chad, 36, the third generation to take the reins. The company never gave any thought to the fitness of its employees, Wayne Gono said, until a few years ago, when it offered its workers a chance to join a UnitedHealth program that distributed basic Trio wrist devices that measure steps.
Enrollees in the program, called UnitedHealthcare Motion, get up to $1,000 a year if they hit certain goals, such as 10,000 steps in a day, 3,000 of those steps within 30 minutes, and 500 steps at intervals throughout the day. The money reimburses health-plan enrollees for prescription co-pays and other payments under their deductibles.
Gono said he has not seen evidence the program is saving the business money on premiums. But he says it stands to reason that healthier employees will be better for the bottom line — eventually. Regal Plastics employees who wear the devices (many don’t, especially younger people who don’t have many medical expenses) said they like them.
Gono’s UnitedHealth app reveals a list of the top performers. Ronald “Hot Rod’’ Wilborn, 47, has an advantage over many of his colleagues and consistently ranks near the top. His job, using precision machines to turn sheet plastic into useful things, requires him to walk multiple round trips from the shop to the warehouse. On a recent day, one round trip clocked at 386 steps. He frequently amasses more than 20,000 steps a day. He gets a small check every quarter from UnitedHealth.
“The more I walk, the more I get,’’ Wilborn said.
Another employee whom Gono said he personally challenged to lose weight, Eddie Watson, 46, works in the Irving office as a sales representative. He has lost 40 pounds but has hit a plateau and is looking for ways to lose 20 more. He has a 6-year-old daughter and takes her to the park near his house to accumulate steps, he said.
During an interview in the Regal break room, Watson munched from a plate of guacamole and greens. Exercise surveillance is just part of a broader culture shift at Regal aimed at employee well-being, including introduction of standing desks, music during working hours, and graphics at work stations that show each person’s working style and preferences.
As part of the changing culture, Regal’s leaders encouraged employees to “clean up your life, too,’’ Watson said. “That kind of planted the seeds.’’
Now, Watson said he examines every aspect of his diet through a prism of personal health, for example: “I can’t drink this soda, because there’s no place for it in my body.’’ Without encouragement from his employer, he added, none of this would have happened.
One of the few millennials with a step-tracker on his wrist at Regal was Travis Lee, a thin, 29-year-old purchasing agent. He has few medical expenses, so he doesn’t even earn money from UnitedHealth for hitting step goals. But on Black Friday last year, he upgraded to a Fitbit Charge 2 because he likes monitoring his steps, sleep and heart rate. He synced it to his UnitedHealth account so he still shows up on Gono’s app.
He doesn’t worry too much about where his data goes, or how it is used.
“It’s part of the generation. We’re used to it,’’ Lee said. “We kind of know we’re giving something up to use it.’’
Where is the data going?
Once health and fitness data leaves an employee’s wrist, it enters a digital realm that critics say is loosely regulated.
The information streams to an app on the worker’s phone, and from there to several possible places: the manufacturer of the device, the health insurance company, the employer or a wellness-plan administrator — or all of them.
Because the wearer of the device is voluntarily giving up data, companies enjoy greater legal leeway in how it is used.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association provides one example. The association, which represents Blue Cross health plans across the country, offers a Blue365 wellness monitoring program, which includes member discounts to buy Fitbit devices. When they sign up for the Fitbit app, members can “opt-in’’ to have their information disclosed from Fitbit to their Blue Cross plan and their employer.
“Fitbit is committed to protecting consumer privacy and putting users in control of their personal data,’’ the company said in response to questions from The Washington Post. “Fitbit believes that corporate wellness programs should always be inclusive, voluntary and should protect the privacy of the people they are aimed to serve.’’
Aetna, which is part of CVS Health, last month announced a new wellness program featuring Apple watches. It said it is up to users to decide what data they want to share.
UnitedHealth said employers typically have access to “de-identified’’ employee data. But there are exceptions. “In some instances, employers may receive certain additional information for plan administrative purposes,’’ UnitedHealth said. (At Regal Plastics, Gono’s app shows employees identified by unique handles). Privacy and data specialists say sharing of potentially sensitive health and fitness data is becoming widespread.
Google, Amazon and Apple are rapidly expanding their ability to conduct health analysis based on data shared with them, said Sanket Shah, a senior director at Blue Health Intelligence, which provides workforce health analytics for employers in Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance networks.
“They’re basically taking all these troves of data, and starting to provide a holistic view of population health and individual health,’’ Shah said. “It’s handle with care. The data is very sensitive, and if it falls into the wrong hands, it could be devastating.’’
Many consumers are under the mistaken belief that all health data they share is required by law to be kept private under a federal law called HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The law prohibits doctors, hospitals and insurance companies from disclosing personal health information.
But if an employee voluntarily gives health data to an employer or a company such as Fitbit or Apple — entities that are not covered by HIPPA’s rules — those restrictions on disclosure don’t apply, said Joe Jerome, a policy lawyer at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit in Washington. The center is urging federal policymakers to tighten up the rules.
“There’s gaps everywhere,’’ Jerome said.
Real-time information from wearable devices is crunched together with information about past doctors visits and hospitalizations to get a health snapshot of employees. Sleep monitoring has especially profound implications. Poor sleep can be a key indicator of depression, substance abuse or other mental disturbances. Overweight insomniacs, as measured in this new world, for example, will stand out faster as potentially costly health insurance risks.
Some companies also add information from outside the health system — social predictors of health such as credit scores and whether someone lives alone — to come up with individual risk forecasts.
“The Fitbit or Apple Watch applications . . . may yield clues to things about you that you are not even aware of, or not ready for other people to know,’’ said Electronic Frontier’s Tien. “Individuals and consumers who are buying these devices don’t understand that is a potential consequence.’’