Privacy concerns thwart employee fitness programs

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

Joe Kennedy

Employee wellness programs would be more effective if companies had wider access to data on workers’ health, and employees say they would share more information if the programs meet their fitness needs, according to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

According to the survey, sponsored by Humana, some companies believe that employees don’t participate in wellness plans due to privacy concerns. But, in fact, workers say they are far more concerned about a lack of time to participate and whether the programs will actually help them get fit.

As a consequence of rising health care costs, companies have shown an increased interest in the health of their workers. One result has been the growth of programs that try to engage employees in exercise and other preventive health measures.

Companies say that these programs would be more effective overall if they had access to a number of data sources, including employee activity and health claims. Yet some companies worry that workers will resist any attempts at data sharing owing to privacy concerns.

The EIU survey suggests that these worries are unfounded.


More than half of the employers report that they have sufficient data to show progress on controlling medical claims, reducing employee health costs, and improving employee health. But companies say more data are needed to determine if programs are effective in boosting employee engagement, morale, or productivity.

The report found that “most [employers] think full cost-benefit justification is neither possible nor necessary. Most also agree, however, that better data collection and interpretation would yield more effective programme management and greater progress toward business goals.”

The EIU survey indicates that privacy concerns are not preventing employees from taking part.

Forty-two percent of employers, but only 27% of employees, cited employee concern about personal information not remaining confidential. Similarly, 24% of employers, but only 11% of employees, cited mistrust about employer motives. In both cases, less than 20% of employees cited mistrust as an obstacle to greater participation in wellness programs.


Individuals, especially the younger generations, increasingly share all sorts of information about themselves. In most cases, they do this voluntarily because it immediately benefits them. It helps them maintain relationships with friends, get discounts on purchases, or aid their doctors in making better diagnoses. What they object to is other people using this information without their consent and in ways that harm them. Patients, for example, may want their data to be shared by those who can help cure them, but object when that same data are used to increase insurance rates.

According to the survey, 38% of workers have no hesitation about sharing personal health data as part of a wellness program. Moreover, two-thirds would share personal health data if assured that it would be used only for their benefit.

However, the main reason for not participating in wellness programs was lack of time.

And it is clear from the EIU survey that workers care about their well-being. Eighty-four percent of respondents say they have goals, mainly directed at fitness (71%), weight (63%), and diet (58%). Many respondents also are adopting new technology, as only 36% responded that they have never used a health and wellness device. These devices, which are often based on wearable tracking technology, generate lots of data. About one-fourth of users routinely track their progress either online or on their smartphone. Another one-third track their progress occasionally. Of those who have never used a personal health and wellness accessory, 72% would use one if their employer integrated the resulting data into the wellness program.

The lesson here seems to be that if employers can guarantee confidentiality and explain how the data will be used, concerns about sharing information are not a major obstacle to worker participation in wellness programs. To accomplish this, employers need to design programs that are easy to participate in and are effective at helping employees reach their goals.

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