Technology: the double-edged sword of wellbeing

Ally Antel, UK Health & Protection - Product Innovation Lead at Aviva, asks if the technology which created the ‘always on’ workplace could be our most powerful weapon in countering its worst aspects.

In the digital world, there’s a sense in which we never leave the workplace – which can hardly be good for wellbeing. But paradoxically, the technology behind this scenario could also be the means to fight it.

The biggest ‘usp’ any organisation possesses is the people who work within it. But when the office is at your fingertips 24 hours a day, easily accessed through a host of devices, we have to question how well we’re looking after this invaluable asset.  More than ever before, employers are being encouraged to foster an environment in which mental health issues are openly discussed and steps are taken to prevent minor problems from turning into major ones. And yet 1 in 6 companies report a mental health problem every week 1 - with such problems being the biggest cause of long-term absence.

The effects of the ‘always on’ workplace on physical health could be just as serious. The UK sleeps less than any other country in Europe 2..and the closely-linked conditions of obesity and diabetes are increasingly driving absences from which some workers never return.

Technology has undoubtedly played a role in increasing the stress which leads to these problems. But how can we make it work towards a solution?

Start by knowing what you want, then use technology to achieve it

Making use of technology as force for good begins by developing a clear wellbeing strategy. Prevention, early intervention and the ability to learn more about employees are the cornerstones of such a strategy. Know what you want to achieve, and then you can start to find technological solutions – such as smartphone apps – to help you get there.

At Aviva, we developed an app which draws on established social media principles to help our employees engage with wellbeing on a regular basis. The app creates a sense of community through light-hearted health-related challenges and activities – the same approach which draws users back to Facebook and Twitter time and again. Within four weeks of launch it was achieving engagement rates five times higher than the industry average – and now almost 50% of Aviva’s 16,000-strong UK workforce has registered to use it.

We also offer access to online health checks, a lifestyle tracking app, access to a digital GP service and input on meditation and mindfulness from online healthcare experts Headspace.

Perhaps the key point behind this smartphone-delivered wellbeing programme is that it is just as mobile as any other component of the ‘always on’ workplace – but, in this instance, blurring the line between work and home in a wholly positive sense.

Data is the lifeblood of a successful wellbeing strategy

Technology has a further role to play, beyond delivering content which makes it easier for employees to look after their physical and mental health. It also empowers employers to gain the data from which valuable insights arise.  By recording information gained from app usage – or directly from surveys – you can take snapshots of your workforce’s wellbeing, at a fixed point in time and on an ongoing basis, which determine priorities for action.

Our own experience showed how valuable these insights can be. We gleaned statistics on the relative health and wellbeing engagement of employees at our two biggest sites. This confirmed that one site – I’m not saying which! – was a great deal more health-focused than the other, and provided the evidence we needed to take actions that have since evened out the picture considerably.

One final point in favour of using technology to gather data… metrics are good for the longevity of your wellbeing programme. The existence of data confirming a beneficial effect on absenteeism or productivity is vital when the finance department starts asking questions about your investment!